Content warnings – mentions of sexual abuse, sex, addiction and mental illness
‘Ice’ (1967) by Anna Kavan is a fever dream of a novel that seems to defy genre and categorisation. In some ways a post-nuclear dystopian tale, in others a brutal critique of patriarchal power; this slim volume of surrealism left me pondering over what I had just read for days. Kavan herself was a complex individual with a personal life blighted by tragedy and a heroine addiction that would eventually result in her death. Her disjointed psyche practically bleeds through the pages of this novel.
‘Ice’ centres around a seemingly endless pursuit between three characters, our unreliable protagonist and narrator, a warlord known only as ‘the warden’, and a sylph-like girl with “glittering silver hair” who seems to disappear into the icy landscape created by Kavan. The characters remain nameless throughout the novel, with ‘the warden’ being the only exception, and although Kavan’s descriptions are gloriously rich in detail, not one setting is identified. Perhaps Kavan is implying the universality of the story. Our narrator’s version of events slips between reality and hallucination frequently as he confesses to having “horrible dreams” that are “not confined to sleep only”. His obsessive desire for power over the girl that drives the plot, takes place against a climate of destruction, as an apocalyptic wall of ice gradually envelopes the earth. The girl herself is a purposefully underdeveloped character, acting only as an empty vessel for the desire of the two abusive men who attempt to “rescue” and “save” her. As the novel progresses, the girl is claimed first by one of these men, then the other, despite her own wishes, whilst being casually assaulted and belittled by both. We soon understand that our narrator and ‘the warden’ are two parts of the same whole. Together they are the complete figure of machismo and toxic masculinity, “Between the two of us she was reduced to nothing; her only function might have been to link us together.” The narrator also identifies the girl’s role as a victim frequently throughout the novel, referring to a childhood of neglect and parental abuse that remains unexplored. He revels in her submissive position of inferiority and seems to derive sexual pleasure in the thought of being strong enough to hurt her.
In many ways, Kavan exploits the ‘damsel-in-distress’ trope often employed in modern science-fiction novels to highlight the absurdity of an idea that is so obviously catered to satisfy the male ego. Both men believe they are protective figures and yet they are the only real sources of danger to her. The few times in which the girl is shown to truly thrive is when no man is attempting to assert his dominance over her, but predictably, this independence and confidence is perceived as lacking purity.
Kavan’s critique of patriarchal power is subtle, especially considering the novel is written from the perspective of an abusive male predator who believes his actions are justified by the fact he is ‘in love’ with a woman. It is often a difficult read and is unlikely to lift your spirits, but it strikes me as a truly important text in which the mistreatment of women is shown elegantly through the behaviour of men who perceive themselves as saviours.
Originally written for Girl Up Norwich’s Blog