In the months before the outbreak of the first world war, Anton Heideck arrives in Vienna. Family life offered him the prospect of a job in his father’s meat factory, but he goes to the big city to start a career as a writer. What he finds is Delphine. They fall in love, move into a flat, then a house in the countryside outside Vienna; but when war breaks out the fragility of their happiness is brutally exposed.
Snow Country moves from this doomed love to post-war Vienna, and to Lena, the daughter of an alcoholic part-time call girl. Lena eventually goes to Vienna, where she comes close to following her mother’s path, before finding work at a sanatorium near to where she grew up. Anton, back from the war and now a famous journalist, is working on a story about this clinic for the mentally afflicted. When he arrives and sees Lena, she looks familiar, but he can’t work out why.
Sebastian Faulks’s latest novel is beautifully written, shot through with a sense of the frailty of love that is at times reminiscent of William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms. As the narrative slides into the 1930s and the memory of war recedes, the terrible sense starts to build of yet greater horrors to come. Even at his happiest moment, Anton looks out of his apartment window ‘towards the Belvedere Gardens, where a group of armed policemen was moving purposefully along the pavement’.
But unlike Faulkner, Faulks is very direct in how he reveals his characters, and the setting of a mental institution means they sometimes simply state their innermost thoughts. ‘I wondered whether all aspects of irrationality might be connected. Including sex and love,’ says Anton to a psychoanalyst in one of their several conversations. The idea of the lead characters undergoing the talking cure has obvious authorial benefits, but it occasionally makes things feel too overt — for example when Anton realises that ‘He had come to think that the warring parts of him, religious and material, could be unified in Lena. He could make amends; he could be redeemed.’ Would it be more effective perhaps to show these things rather than have a character say them?
Even so, this is a superb novel, a love story of enormous emotional weight and a portrait of Europe torn apart, and preparing to rend itself once again.