The silence between mothers and daughters

On Jessica Au’s novel Cold Enough for Snow (2022), the winner of the Inaugural Novel Prize.

In an early scene of Jessica Au’s novel Cold Enough for Snow, a bright garden unfurls below the tall, stone house of a university lecturer. Here, life is fixed in time as “a still in a film, or a photograph”. Olive trees surround a table laden with food and drink. Classmates clink glasses of wine and swap elegant words dressed in education. “I could not seem to believe that this world existed,” muses our narrator, an unnamed young woman, gazing back at the memory, “and that I had somehow got entrance to it.” 

Reading the Inaugural Novel Prize-winning book is not unlike standing in that garden –  so rich and clear that one wishes to stay there forever.

Its premise is deceptively simple: a young woman arranges a holiday to Japan with her mother. As they float through train stations, art galleries, and shrines, Au unspools the characters’ relationship over a shining surface of memory and scenic beauty. The story’s temporality is porous, with a cast of largely unnamed lovers, family, and friends straddling past and present. Their anonymity does not alienate the reader but rather the opposite, imbuing it with a fabulistic and timeless quality. 

This timelessness is enhanced by Au’s clean and simple prose. To read Cold Enough for Snow is to sink through one glassy still-life to another, inferring colour and sensation in a few deft strokes. A piece of jade from Hong Kong is “a deep and creamy green”; the sea through a window is “pale like the edge of a blue cup”; glaze pooled within a bowl looks “like liquid, like a blue pond, but if you tilted the bowl to the side, it never moved.” 

But at the heart of Cold Enough for Snow lies all that remains unsaid between mother and daughter, both throughout the trip and over their lives.

In one interview, the Melbourne-based author stated that she wanted to explore how migration across generations “can sometimes be an ongoing process of fragmentation, forgetting, rediscovery and nostalgia, in which strong memories can exist alongside gaps of knowledge.” 

The daughter wishes to further discuss Japan’s art, philosophy, and history with her mother, but cannot find the words to connect with her. The physical vulnerability and oneness of mother and child is obstructed by the mother’s clothed composure while travelling, with moments of private disarray shut behind hotel bedroom doors and polite formalities. Lamenting her poor Japanese language skills at the trip’s end, the daughter nods to the linguistic and emotional cleft between the pair: “my mother’s first language was Cantonese, and mine was English…we only ever spoke together in one, not the other.” 

But silence is also a quietly liberating force in Cold Enough for Snow, which Au has described as “really trying to say only one thing, but being unable to do so with words.”

“Rather, it [the novel] would simply need to carve the space, via digressions, memory and history, in which this ‘one thing’ could rest.”

Indeed, I felt that so much of my own life could rest on Au’s words. I thought often of my mother while reading; Japan is her favourite place, as a designer and one strongly attuned to aesthetic beauty. Before COVID, she booked a trip there each year, sometimes with me. But in the last few years as I’ve progressed through university life, I’ve had little interest in travelling with her anymore.  

The opening scene of the novel wherein daughter and mother weave their way through the crowd before a Tokyo train station, is arguably one of the few where they are genuinely intimate. “All the while my mother stayed close to me,” writes Au, “as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was a current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart.” 

The image of mother and daughter helplessly drifting further apart touched me with a deep and unexpected sadness. I considered how our busy adult lives have eroded the intimacy between my mother and I – how we simply cannot, or will not, make a space to pour the other into, as we used to when I was younger. I thought of how I brandish the particular intellect and vocabulary of elite education at pieces of culture like Au’s protagonist, stifling the more intuitive responses that my mother favours. I wondered if, perhaps, I too must learn “when and when not to speak,” and value her insights. 

If the novel invokes any critique, it’s that perhaps too much time is dedicated to some vignettes of memory – such as those at the novel’s end of the narrator’s boyfriend Laurie and his father – and not enough elaborating on the relationship in the present between mother and daughter. Nonetheless, Cold Enough for Snow is imbued with “an eternal metaphoric quality” like the ancient Greek stories the narrator so loves, that may speak to almost anything in life. 

In the bright, full garden of her narrative, Au posits an argument for truth-seeking; that we gaze indirectly at what lies before us, searching for nothing in particular, in order to find everything we need.