“Ice,” a novel from 1967 by Anna Kavan, is both a tale of dystopian societies and of an impending apocalypse. It’s also a cryptic story that compels the reader to keep turning pages even though they might have the nagging feeling they aren’t one hundred percent sure what’s going on.
The plot, such as it is, involves the narrator’s obsession with “the girl,” who he has known since they were young, and his pursuit of her across the globe through increasingly strange and frightening locations. Nation states are devolving into chaos, backsliding into tribalism or dictatorships as the ice engulfing the planet claims them one by one. The ice might be the symptom of a nuclear winter or something else.
At the beginning of the book there are indications that the narrator is involved in secretive government operations. He mentions investigating “rumors of a mysterious impending emergency” but his obsession with the girl distracts him from his investigation. It is through his pursuit that we get a tour of what is happening — a country under the control of a strongman called “The Warden,” another devoted solely to revelry, the inhabitants tuning out news of their impending doom, and eventually a land of warring entities being encased in ice.
The countries are never named in this book. Neither are the principal characters. It all unfolds with the abstraction of a dream. There are scenes that might only be taking place in the narrator’s imagination, but that is never made explicit. At times this obtuse approach can create a sense of distance from the events of the book, but it also gives the story a haunting quality that is difficult to ignore.
In the foreword to the 50th anniversary edition of “Ice,” Jonathan Lethem suggests that a journey Anna Kavan took to various ports during World War II might have informed the scenes of war, unrest and societal dysfunction found in “Ice.” There is also a theory that the book is an allegory for the author’s struggles with heroin addiction. Then there is the troubling obsession and possessiveness towards the girl, not only on the part of the narrator, but also from other men she encounters in the book. Is that a reflection of Kavan’s personal experiences, of the way women are treated in general, or both? There is a lot to puzzle over in this slim, mysterious novel of a broken world facing its slow demise.