At some point during my maiden reading of The Snow Collectors, I felt compelled to turn to the person sitting beside me and explain the book’s plot. This person—a friend who is by no means coy about taunting me for what she might deem my “less accessible” taste in novels—arched an eyebrow and said it sounded unlike what I normally read. She wasn’t wrong.
Were you to break The Snow Collectors down to its component parts, it would be evident you are reading a suspense novel. But you probably don’t need to go to such extreme measures, as Tina May Hall is not shy about presenting her novel as a murder mystery from its first sentence: “I found the dead woman at the edge of the woods on the last day of January. King month. Thirty-one spikes on a crown of icicles,” her narrator, Henna, announces. And it is in this spirit—simultaneously plot driven and softened by its atmospheric prose—that the novel pushes forward. Henna emerges as a gothic heroine, unravelling twin mysteries for the reader: Who murdered this young woman? And how is it linked to the Franklin Expedition (an Arctic exploration which sank into the ice centuries beforehand)?
I don’t think I will be alone in saying it is not the novel I expected Tina May Hall to write. I almost certainly will not be alone in saying I am grateful she wrote it all the same. Hall, who was selected by Renata Adler as the 2010 winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for her short story collection The Physics of Imaginary Objects, has become somewhat of an indie darling over the last decade—receiving effusive praise from the likes of Peter Markus and Roxane Gay. The Physics of Imaginary Objects at times reads closer to poetry than it does anything resembling fiction. They are fragmented, dreamlike stories. To speak about its use of form would be to speak about the sonnet.
Maybe this is why it’s a distinct pleasure to watch Hall try on such a strict narrative form in The Snow Collectors—why the writing reads as nearly gleeful. There is a self-aware quality to Henna’s narration, a sense that she too is surprised this is the novel she woke up inside of. “A good heroine would have wandered downstairs at this point, blundered into a séance or a robbery, at the very least found an ominous book of local history in the drawer of the bedside table or a bundle of bills in the antique cabinet,” she writes, self-deprecatingly. At other times, she attempts to justify her own agency in the book: “It wasn’t what you’d hope from a gothic heroine, but it was sensible.”
The Snow Collectors is lush and clever with its prose, but Tina May Hall writes with the confidence of a prosaist who knows her novel is damn fun. There are stylistic embellishments which could put our most prominent poets to shame (“Odd in such a cold place, how many things there were that burned,” she writes) and there are times when the novel seems unceasing in its most base narrative pleasures. One needs to look no further than Henna’s sidekick—the basset hound, Rembrandt—and a love story which begins to slowly leak from the pages of our central narrative. In the midst of all this pleasure though, one could almost lose sight of how serious this novel is. Set in an arctic landscape on the verge of environmental catastrophe, Hall is ultimately writing a book about extinction. This manifests most starkly with the enigmatic Mr. Plover, and his equally puzzling “Extinction Museum.” It serves as a kind of vanishing point for the novel—a site Henna and the reader are both drawn to, but one that raises as many questions as it answers. It becomes all the more intriguing when one considers a series of recently published micro-fictions by Hall (not included in the novel) which, in a hybrid voice typical of her earlier work, outlines some of the museum’s contents.
“We are living at a historic juncture, the brink of another mass extinction, and we are rushing toward it like starving people,” Plover “enthuses” toward the end. And I’ll admit: I stumbled on this dialogue descriptor. Enthused is an odd way even for this book’s most enigmatic character to speak of a mass extinction. But with that said, this is a novel diffuse with enthusiasm for pleasures of narrative, and so it may, in fact, be fitting. Throughout, Hall wades in and out of genre trappings with nerve and with playfulness.
The Snow Collectors
By Tina May Hall
Published February 12, 2020
Garrett Biggs grew up in California. These days, he is the Jeff Metcalf Humanities in the Community Fellow at the University of Utah. More of his work can be found at garrettbiggs.net.