When we think of rehashing trauma, we often think of a sad woman lying on her back, talking to a therapist who listens silently while taking the occasional note or two. Anna Kavan displays a fragile world in Ice, one that explores trauma in a way so raw it is sometimes uncomfortable to read. Fragmented and dreamlike, the way memories of past abuse often are, Ice explores the relationship between the narrator, an often-violent and persistent man, and the object of his affection, a very slender, pale young woman.
There are clearly echoes of Kavan herself in the novel, the last work she wrote before she died. Living through two unhappy marriages, a lifelong struggle with heroine, and time in asylums, Kavan lived a very haunted life. It is interesting, then, that she exorcises these ghosts in Ice not from the point of few of “the girl”, but from the man who hunts her. Just as trauma sticks with people throughout lifetimes, even if properly coped with, the main character of Ice refused to leave the life of the girl who possessed his thoughts. All the men in the novel seek to possess her, from her painter husband, to the narrator, to the warlord opportunist who wishes to have her as a trophy. At the same time, all these men are one and the same. Along with the blurring of dream and reality Kavan blurs past and present and the identities of the characters. While there are many bodies, Ice truly only has two characters: one masculine, and one feminine. The masculine are those who wish to possess the ice girl, with her skin taut against her bones, her hair blonde-white, nearly translucent in the sun. These qualities of her, uncomfortable when described, are all positives to the unnamed narrator, who fantasizes about violence against her.
The girl, the feminine, on the other hand, seems troublesome at first. If one half is masculine, and the other feminine, what does this novel say about the feminine? A cursory glance may tell you that femininity is fragile, breakable, unable to defend herself, without agency. It makes more sense, however, when viewing the girl not as a metaphor for women, but rather a metaphor for gender-inflicted trauma. Where other authors documented in this project such as Delany and Le Guin are able to create worlds to serve as accents to their metaphors, Kavan has constructed a world of metaphor.
The main action in the book is the man trying to collect the woman with the goal of escaping an ever-encroaching glacier for as long as they can. The world is getting colder every day, and they will not be able to escape the ice forever. Whether or not the glacier exists does not matter, for it is another expression of their toxic relationship. As long as the man lusts for his ice girl, and refuses to see fault in himself, the ice will come and kill them both. And so, it does!
The glacier is apocalyptic and seemingly unstoppable, but as it cannot emote in any way, it is passive in its destruction. Many have connected this glacier to Kavan’s near-lifelong addiction to heroin. Heroin causes an effect in users that causes them to feel sleepy, dreamlike. And when heroin wears off, it causes sleeplessness, chills, and soreness. The entirety of Ice, frankly, feels sleepy, chilling, and sore.
No one needs convincing that writing novels can be a cathartic experience for the author. Literature allows a playing ground for authors to confront their trauma directly, and allows for others to read their words and connect them to their own lives, their own trauma. If anyone needed convincing that this, too, could be done through science-fiction, then Ice is here to convince them. Deeply dark, Ice is still oddly cathartic, even if some passages are disturbing and unpleasant to read. The ending feels wrong, like a betrayal upon first read. But after sitting with it for an hour, a day, maybe even a week, I feel that most readers realize that Ice is a heavily complex short novel about sexual violence and addiction—physical and psychological.