A Woman Made of Snow

Written by Elisabeth Gifford
Review by Imogen Varney

This engaging novel begins with a plea from a person unknown and long dead. The speaker urgently begs to be named and acknowledged. The book is an account of how one 20th-century family travels back in time and away to wild places to enable them to put a name to that mysterious voice and understand why the person was absent from their family tree.

A young couple, Alasdair and Caro, have returned to live on the remote family estate in Fife, where Alasdair’s mother lives in the dilapidated family castle. It is a challenging prospect for new mother Caro, who must stay isolated at home with her young baby and only an unappreciative mother-in-law for company when her husband is at work. She is eventually given a sense of purpose by being asked to research the family’s historical records to fill in puzzling gaps. The chance discovery, partway through the work of human bones buried on the estate, heightens the importance of her work.

The story alternates between the generation living in the castle in the 1880s and their descendants in 1949-50, showing how issues of family relationships and class recur from generation to generation in slightly different forms, but also how social attitudes to other societies do change over time.

The most vivid sections of the book recreate a 19th-century whaling trip to the Arctic from Dundee, based on research in the records in Dundee museums and diaries from the time, describing in detail the day-to-day lives of the hardy fishermen undertaking those perilous expeditions and the vital part whale-hunting played in the economy of coastal Scotland in the 19th century. A worthy successor to Gifford’s earlier novels.