In this extraordinary novel, Anna Kavan captures the claustrophobic feeling of being caught in a nightmare. The nameless narrator relates a fragmented story of searching for a beautiful, very thin woman with silver hair, who is also under the control of a powerful man, sometimes called the warden. The setting is an unnamed country, in which informers hide in dark corners and people look anxiously over their shoulders for some unspecified threat. The narrator provides a fragmented depiction of an isolated country, relatively poor and embroiled in an unspecified global conflict. The characters are facing another danger as well -- an encroaching wall of ice that is threatening to obliterate all life:Cold coruscations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incandescence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all round. Closer, the trees round the house, sheathed in ice, dripped and sparkled with weird prismatic jewels, reflecting the vivid changing cascades above. Instead of the familiar night sky, the aurora borealis formed a blazing, vibrating roof of intense cold and colour, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its inhabitants, walled in by those impassable glittering ice-cliffs. The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all it creatures trapped as securely as were the trees, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour.
There is beauty in Kavan's descriptions of this world, but it's a deadly beauty -- cold, fragmented, unrelenting. And adding to the sense of dislocation, transitions throughout are abrupt, throwing the reader from present to past to vision to dream and back again. Reading this novel is like being trapped in a labyrinthine nightmare, with no clear sense of what is real and what is a dead end. It's an astonishing accomplishment, and one which provides an apt backdrop for Kavan's examination of violence, fear, and cruelty on all levels, from personal to local to global.