Review: Anna Kavan: Ice: WW Norton: London: 1968

July 23, 2016 in General

Anna Kavan (1901-1968) was a heroin addict and noted surrealist short story author. She was also bisexual, married twice and had two children, one of whom died during the Second World War. Ice (1968) was her final lifetime novel. It is set in an unnamed country (although it is implied to be Scandinavian), after a nuclear device has triggered the onset of a new Ice Age, dislodging the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. Kavan’s narrator has no name or gender, although they are pursuing a young woman, and intermittently falls into the clutches of “The Warden”, a local warlord, as they traverse the encroaching icefields as they obliterate human civilisation, human and other Earthbound life in its wake. There is some reference to the collapse of government, infrastructure, social services and food distribution networks and the formation of armed militia, but the events occur in a seeming dreamworld, interspersed with moments of apparent normality in areas where the spread of the all-encompassing ice has not yet spread- until they are overrun with refugees fleeing from the snowbound Northern Hemisphere (and presumably the far Southern Hemisphere as well).

In her guide to Anna Kavan’s sojourn in New Zealand during the Second World War, Anna Kavan in New Zealand, Jennifer Sturm provides some handy clues about what the book might actually mean. She argues that the ice is a metaphor for Kavan’s heroin addiction, as it encroached upon and strangled her interpersonal relationships with women and men. The dreamworld is the narcotic existential twilight that addicts inhabit, centred on searching, encountering, purchasing and using heroin or other narcotics of choice. It is fortuitous that Kavan links the everpresent winter to the detonation of a nuclear device, as it was seventeen years more before the ‘nuclear winter’ hypothesis was developed during the Reagan era Cold War, predicting that such a conflict would blot out the sun and cause a precipitous global drop in temperature due to dust, smoke and atmospheric debris. The young woman is the normality and concrete, durable relationship that Kavan was never able to have with either women or men, and the apocalyptic milieu may be a premonition of her own impending death later that year as her exhausted body reacted against ingesting further heroin intake. New Zealand itself may be the utopian respites depicted in this work. It’s a haunting book, as the final scenes occur in a car speeding away through the omnipresent ice to certain oblivion for both its occupants. For the moment, the narrator and their lover are warm and sheltered, but this will not last. Even after nearly half a century, this is still a deeply affecting masterpiece.

See Also:

Jennifer Sturm: Anna Kavan in New Zealand: Auckland: Vintage: 2009.