Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Wednesday, April 26, 2017: Maximum Shelf: Girl in Snow


Simon & Schuster: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Simon & Schuster: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

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Girl in Snow

by Danya Kukafka

The town of Broomsville, Colo., is rocked by the early-morning discovery of Lucinda Hayes's body, slung against the carousel in the elementary school playground. Lucinda was a freshman in high school, and the town's golden girl: beautiful, kind, smart, popular. In the days that follow, though, her secrets and those of her friends and neighbors will be expertly teased to light, old wounds reopened and a number of lives permanently changed.

Girl in Snow is Danya Kukafka's first novel, and its riveting narrative dives immediately into the impact of Lucinda's death through the perspective of her classmate Cameron, an unpopular, troubled teenager whose waking thoughts, dreams and artwork all fixate on her. "Cameron hated the word 'stalk.' He had other words for his relationship with Lucinda, but they were words no one else would understand. Words like vibrant, frantic, twinkling, aching...." He is an obvious early suspect. But there are others: the night janitor who found the body, Lucinda's ex-boyfriend, a homeless man, even her parents.

Then the perspective shifts, as it will throughout this stark and striking novel, from Cameron's to that of Jade, a junior at the high school, who finds it pointless to even pretend to mourn Lucinda's death. The third point in this triangulated mystery is Russ, a police officer of 17 years who shares an old trauma with one suspect, and is related to another by marriage. The reader's lens on the story rotates among these three characters as each struggles with the way his or her life has changed, and sooner or later feels compelled to investigate.

Objectively, Cameron is a stalker; he is certainly troubled. Jade is sullen and generally hostile. Russ, like the two teens, is haunted by his past. They are absorbing characters, with layers of secrets that overlap among them. Although Jade's chapters are told in first-person, and Cameron's and Russ's in the third, their distresses are all written with raw immediacy, and each character is complex, aching and ashamed, for different reasons. Kukafka drags these hidden injuries and infamies out of her characters slowly and by degrees. This measured pacing and withholding of information gives her novel an atmosphere of nearly painful suspense. This is not a traditional murder mystery, although the killer's identity does remain unknown for most of its length. Rather, it is a quietly taut thriller concerned with the secrets we keep from our closest loved ones--and even from ourselves.

Kukafka's meticulous details--like Jade's musical tastes and Russ's wife's background--enrich her characters and add to the sense of realism. Cameron is a skilled visual artist with a precise understanding of plant and animal anatomy. Jade is a loner, "eyes ringed in black; raven, greasy hair swooped over one eye," "two inches of pale stomach rolled over her waistband even though it was winter and she was probably cold," and even though her mother disapproves. Jade's little sister is their mother's Barbie doll, "a mannequin for Ma's regret about her worry lines and all those cigarettes she smokes."

Jade knows that "When people die, they become angel caricatures of themselves," and Lucinda was perhaps not so perfect as the news reports would have it. The reader has only the perspectives of Cameron, Jade and Russ to go on, and their opinions of her vary, but even in these glimpses the dead girl receives some nuance of characterization.

Secondary characters come just as fully formed. Lucinda's ex-boyfriend Zap, whose parents are French, loves astronomy. Cameron's art teacher has a history and loves of his own, besides his obvious passion for his work. Broomsville may be an "overgrown cul-de-sac," "like a cardboard town filled with paper people," but its inhabitants are as variously disturbed and troubled as any group of imperfect humans. One of them is a murderer, but it seems they are all guilty of something.

Kukafka's prose often leans toward short sentences and quick turns, but also pauses for beauty or metaphor. There is a poignancy to Cameron's observations of the physical world, as he kneads his eraser, noting "snowflakes kissing a windowsill, fingernails dug into the skin of a tangerine." He thirsts for beauty, and thinks there's "nothing worse than loving someone and mixing up their earlobes with someone else's." But one of the points of Girl in Snow is that appearances are often terribly misleading.

"It's all about perception. What I see is automatically my truth, simply because I've seen it." The impossible objectivity of sight and memory, and the slender boundary between devotion and obsession, between appearance and truth: these are the central questions of a novel with a murder at its heart, but with broader concerns. Girl in Snow is about the effects of Lucinda's death on an entire town, and Kukafka's memorable characters allow those effects to keep hold of the reader long after the final denouement. --Julia Jenkins

Simon & Schuster, $26, hardcover, 368p., 9781501144370

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photo: Elliot Ross

Danya Kukafka is a graduate of New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She currently works as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books. Girl in Snow, due to be published in August by Simon & Schuster, is her first novel.

You began writing novels when you were just 16. What is different about this, your first to be published?

I was writing pretty straight YA before. I wrote my first full novel--it was very bad--for a 10th grade project, and I gave it to my mom for Mother's Day. And she said, "Honey, this is about a dead girl!" And after that I dabbled in some Peter Pan fan fiction, and then I wrote a paranormal YA novel when I was in college that was rejected by about a billion agents. And then after that I decided to go a little bit older. When I first wrote this book, I thought it was a YA novel until someone told me that it was not. So, I think as I got older my writing sort of naturally got older, too.

I had read a lot of straight YA when I was in high school, and a lot of it deals in the paranormal. One of my favorite series is Meg Cabot's Mediator series. It's about a girl who can talk to a ghost. I loved those books, and I took a lot of what I thought paranormal books could do from that. But I've definitely moved away from that, probably for good. I'm happy that this is the one that caught. Looking back, I'm glad it wasn't those earlier ones that published.

How did you choose this setting in (fictional) small-town Colorado?

I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado. It's actually not a small town, it's a pretty large city; but surrounding it are all these really small suburban enclaves, and I think they're really interesting. They're so insular. And the landscape of that part of Colorado is also really interesting to me. It's the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, so you have these huge mountains looming over you, and to the other side you have open plains. You're just kind of tucked into the base right there.

Why three characters' voices? Did they all come to you at once, or did one come later than the others?

Oh, this is a good one. No, they did not. The first character that I had was Cameron, and I thought the book was only Cameron's book, when I started it. I wrote an entire draft of only Cameron, but I could not get to the end. None of the endings made sense, and I couldn't figure out what to do. I was taking a writing class at NYU with Colson Whitehead, and there was a story that I had written, that had a very, very early version of Jade's voice. It came out really naturally, and everyone in the class really liked it, and I sort of thought, well, what if there's a way to fit her into the story? So I had this draft, a full draft of the novel, and I went back and I wrote all of Jade's chapters into that draft in about six months. And I had what I thought was a YA novel in my hands. But then I signed with my agent, Dana Murphy at the Book Group, and she said, this is not a YA book. This is adult writing and about adult themes, so let's write in an adult perspective. (It was also very short.) So that was where Russ came in. We sort of thought up Russ together. And it was amazing how much he opened up the book for me: it felt so much bigger and richer and more expansive. But... I wouldn't do it that way again.

Why not?

Since I had basically fleshed out the whole plot from one perspective, it was actually pretty easy to go in and add these people in terms of structure, because I already had the opening and the middle and the end. I knew generally what needed to happen. So it was actually really fun to go in and find out the little ways I could put these characters into the world that I had built. It was definitely messy for a while, but at the same time I always knew that it was making this world bigger, which I really liked. But it was very accidental and--well, maybe I will end up doing it this way again! But I hope to go into it with a little more intention and a little more knowledge next time.

Do you have a favorite among the three protagonists?

Cameron has to be my favorite. He's the little dude of my heart, my little brain child. I love Jade for many other reasons--I loved writing Jade because she's so angsty and such a teenager, and that was really fun to write. And as Russ came along I got to be more of a grown-up, which I also really enjoyed. But yeah, my favorite's Cameron and I won't hesitate to say it. Sorry, guys.

How has your day job (as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books) affected your writing?

I think I've become much harder on myself, which is a good thing. Also, I'm reading all the time, which is really good for my muscles, I guess. Just being able to read other people's work as it's coming in, and see how even really successful and amazing authors need revision--that's been really inspiring for me, because I realize that everyone goes through this kind of horrible process of writing a book. But I've also had a really great experience learning to discern what stories I find necessary and interesting. Working for an editor and as an editor has helped me become pickier as a reader and a writer. Of course, I also find it a little bit scary sometimes, just seeing the volume of amazing work that is out there and knowing that you're going to have to fit into it somewhere.

And what's next?

I'm working on a new novel. I can't say much about it yet but I will say it's going to be set in upstate New York, about a family. I'm working on a draft, it's messy right now, but it's been really freeing to start something new and be out of the story I've been with for so long. I can play around now. I can do something totally different. --Julia Jenkins


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