Whether she really exists or not, Faina, as they eventually call her, will capture your imagination just as she captures Jack and Mabel’s. With “grey-green lichens, wild yellow grasses, and curled bits of birch bark” in her hair, she scampers among the trees with her fox, appearing and disappearing without warning. She’s another in the growing crowd of fiercely independent girls we’ve seen in recent fiction including Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!,”Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Once Upon a River” and Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones.” At first, Faina is “a phantom, a silent blur,” “fanciful and yet feral.” And she grows no less mysterious and magnetic when we get to see more of her. She hovers between reality and fantasy just as this novel does.
Although Ivey teases us with surreal elements, they remain an elusive scent in these pages, which are grounded in the deadly but gorgeous Alaskan landscape. And there’s nothing make-believe about the tender solicitude between Jack and his wife of 20 years. He sees the transformation in her when she believes “the child was born to them of ice and snow and longing,” but he’s wary of her magical thinking, terrified that she won’t survive another loss. “Her capacity for grief frightened him,” Ivey writes, and her fear haunts even the happiest scenes in this novel, which is a captivating mix of melancholy and whimsy. (The fairy-tale instinct must run deep in the author’s blood: The name Eowyn comes from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”)