“The Ice Garden” by Moira Crone. Carolina Wren Press, 2014. $18.95.
Fayton is the kind of sleepy little Carolina town where not much seems to happen. For 10-year-old Claire, the biggest thing to ever occur in her young life is the arrival of her baby sister, Sweetie. When Claire’s mother Diana — “a blue-eyed, broad-shouldered blonde who went through a room like a magnet, pulling men’s heads behind her” — arrives home with the baby, Claire can hardly contain her expectations.
Things do happen in Fayton. Claire knows that. Things happen behind the closed doors of the white-painted homes where perfect families shed their pretenses and become the flawed beings they are inside. Beneath Diana’s lovely shell of perfection is a very damaged woman.
As the seamlessly constructed plot of this book unfolds, that broken and twisted Diana manifests herself and rules over Claire’s world with psychological abuse. The young girl has protectors: her father; the black housekeeper, Sidney; her beloved Aunt C who comes to care for the baby when Diana can’t or won’t manage. They are not enough.
Told entirely from the viewpoint of Claire, a young girl just on the cusp of puberty, the story chronicles Diana’s descent into the madness, her institutionalization, her return home and, inevitably, her lapse into madness again. Claire’s voice is reminiscent of Scout in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” but the setting of “The Ice Garden” is the 1960s, and there is no Atticus Finch to transcend the ordinary prejudices that mar the innocent sensibility of the time, and no Boo Radley to effect a brave and heroic rescue and leave the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Instead, there is a constantly building sense of dread and foreboding occasionally broken with a lyric passage. Crone is no stranger to poetic description, as when Claire describes a neighborhood park — “there were swing sets, a garden around a fountain, and a broad expanse of sand where nothing would grow under the deep shade of oaks. The light there was always filtered and chalky, unlike anywhere else.”
The novel is short — 221 pages — and moves rapidly to a crescendo when a massive ice storm hits the area, coating everything in a glistening jewel-like shell. In a frozen garden that awful night, Claire discovers how much she is her mother’s daughter and how much she is really her own person. Crone, a former director of the creative writing program at LSU, says this is her best novel. Few books have received higher praise from as respected a source.