This novel spans three time periods from 1903 to 1937, and set mostly in Austria. There are two central characters, Anton a journalist and Lena, the daughter of an alcoholic single mother.
The first part centres around Anton as a young man escaping the family sausage business. He goes to university in Vienna with his friend Friedrick and begins his career as a journalist. In 1914, he falls in love with French woman, Delphine whom he lives with happily until he is sent to Paris to cover a trial. War breaks out and he rushes back to Delphine only to find she has disappeared.
Lena’s story is one of poverty and hardship and when she is fifteen, she meets Rudolph in a hospital where she works. Believing that she is in love with him, she moves to Vienna only to find that her love is not reciprocated.
Then in 1933, Lena takes a menial job at a mental asylum where she meets Anton who is there to write an article exploring whether Austria has lost its status of being at the cutting edge of psychanalysis.
Faulks brilliantly weaves the history of the time throughout the story, taking the reader to such places as the opening of the Panama Canal, which I loved, to the rumblings and rise of Nazism before WW2. We also learn a lot about mental health and how it was dealt with at the time, particularly in the beginning, when women’s issues were regarded as hysteria. And we see the unfolding events from the eyes of these two major characters.
Yet the story is long and drawn out and at times I felt I was taken out of the action by the dumping of a lot of historical information, sometimes a little out of context. As a historical fiction writer, I know how tempting it is to put in everything you’ve researched but I’ve learnt it can also detract. Not that I would ever compare my writing to the wonderful Faulks, but this is how I felt as I read Snow country.
The story of Lena skipped many years without any reference to what she’d done in some of her formative teen years. She had slept with Anton once yet became obsessed by him, forever thinking about him. It seems a little far-fetched belonging the realms of male fantasy perhaps?
At the three-quarter mark my interests began waning, primarily because of the growing implausibility of this very loose plot. We were repeatedly told he was in love with Delphine and still searching for her. And that’s why I just couldn’t buy into the development of Anton’s feelings for Lena and her for him.
Lena reminds Anton of Delphine yet he doesn’t remember actually remember sleeping with her on one occasion years earlier. When he’s told that she’s left the Shloss, he is unsettled, gets drunk and doesn’t know why. Really? I couldn’t be persuaded that he was that dumb.
And the relationship between Rudolph and Lena was unfathomable with no emotional connection. Perhaps he was just using her as a front for respectability? But what was in it for her? Other side characters along the way also seemed like fillers with little purpose.
In summary, the writing is beautiful, the history fascinating but the story line leave a little to be desired.