The Age of Ice: A Novel

  • J.M. Sidorova
  • Scribner
  • 416 pp.

A man strives to understand why strong emotions turn his touch to ice, moving through more than 200 years of Russian history for the answer.

Alexander M. Velitzyn is not like other princelings. He was conceived in a Russian ice palace, and an alter ego he calls Old Man Frost lives inside him. In a novel that is part magical realism and part historical escapade, the undying Alexander grapples with the cold that sprouts from his core and defines his interactions with the world. “Everyone was certain that a colorless runt like me would not see his first summer. But they were wrong. They knew nothing of ice.”

As a private guard to Empress Ekaterine, Alexander learns as a young man that sexual arousal turns his touch to ice. But his difficulty with women is only the beginning. Any strong emotion in Alexander brings forth the cold. Joy is marred. Anger freezes. Intercourse is almost impossible. Alexander knows this tendency toward iciness sets him apart from all others. He is obsessed with understanding it. He pushes himself to the breaking point. On a frozen, snow-piled Russian road, where horses keel over and men freeze to death, Alexander at last begins to understand what it means not to fear what is inside him. In a string of days with little food and no warmth, he becomes Old Man Frost. Alexander does not die. He thrives in the cold.

Old Man Frost recedes. Prince Velitzyn becomes Mr. Velitzyn and travels to the Arctic Circle. He freezes in the ice and is born anew. A friend who discovers Alexander in the ice is driven mad. “His tone was almost reprimanding when he said, ‘You look like Mr. Velitzyn. I found you on the Yasachnoi, entombed in ice. You have been missing for over two months. You still have ice on’ — he cast an evaluative glance — ‘parts of you, and yet you are making conversation.”

Alexander builds up layers of experience. For ice, layers can be dangerous. They pile upon each other and may never melt. The object beneath can lose its identity. Alexander is smarter than ice, though. “Do they not say that ice has memory?” For Alexander, “memory is like an old, old city ... layers of life sink into the ground, new layers are added atop sunken floors, new basements — where attics used to be; sewer lines replace old corridors and sky bridges. No memory ever leaves, it only compounds, belabors, and violates the others.” These are the layers Alexander builds.

A sense of failure pervades Alexander’s story. He has not lived or fought well. He cannot die properly or murder effectively. He fails to find fulfillment in any career or to understand what it takes to be a good friend or lover. He can never quite achieve the happiness and success he glimpses in others. Failure is a heavy burden for a single-point-of-view novel to bear. For the first half of The Age of Ice, the reader is forced to find satisfaction in other aspects of the work, such as vivid secondary characters and beautiful snippets of language. Alexander’s friend, Ivan, appears as if “he’d never filled in, he’d remained boylike, only dried up a bit more, and to me looked taut and brittle now, his skin approaching the texture and color of eggshell.” The Kolyma River shows how “water smoked swirls of cold vapor — pillars of white steam stood here and there across the horizon like umbilical cords between heaven and earth.”

Midway through the novel, the shift to a tropical setting is a warm revelation. The book picks up pace and accumulates depth. Inside Alexander, the cold is always present, but more as a sting of truth than a numbing of emotion. Alexander lives an unfulfilled life, but watching it unfold in a sweep of European wars, Middle Eastern politics and more than 200 hundred years of changing times is interesting.

Andrea M. Pawley lives and writes in Washington D.C., her favorite city.

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