Split Lip REVIEWS
"If the Ice Had Held" by Wendy J. Fox
by Nicole Rivas
It’s 1975. A teenage boy has unexpectedly died in the middle of a Denver winter after he falls through ice. In the wake of Sammy’s untimely death, a series of strange and painful lives bloom out of the frozen ground like wounded, four-limbed fauna. Through the lens of human loss, Wendy J. Fox’s If the Ice Had Held deals with mortality and the tightly linked relationship between death and new life. Fox’s novel explores a series of layered narratives, and the book poses difficult and compelling questions for readers. Questions like: how do we learn to live after loved ones have died or abandoned us? How are we changed by death? How can change feel like death? And speaking of living in the aftermath, what does it mean to survive at all?
If the Ice Had Held deep dives into the lives of several women and men in one small network of family, friends, and acquaintances. My favorite character, the novel’s central protagonist, Melanie, is written with a brazen complexity that’s refreshing to encounter as we follow her tangled life from youth to adulthood. In the midst of a series of one-night stands with married men, a despondent Melanie “remembered when sex still felt full of promise and potential, and going home with someone from a bar could be just an ordinary screw, or it could be the rest of a life.” Several of the characters Fox presents are unlikeable because they are morally repugnant. But Fox presents all those gray areas that make people not just messy,
If the Ice Had Held
Santa Fe Writer’s Project
but messes deserving of sympathy and, at times, messes that challenge us to recognize ourselves in their narratives. It seems Fox’s intent isn’t to make characters like Melanie entirely likeable, but entirely human. It works.
There’s also Brian, one of the married men who routinely engages in extramarital affairs while traveling for work. The trope of amoral businessman quickly crumbles as the novel illuminates Brian’s internal struggles with relationships and societal expectations. “If he could do it over again, Brian wanted something different,” Fox writes. “He wanted to vacation in places where there was no kiddie pool reeking of pee and to live in a home that was not a tripping hazard from all of the plastic and plush toys scattered through the halls. He wanted to work late and call his wife from the office and suggest she get off the train a stop early and meet him for a drink. He wanted to see her walk into a downtown bar, in the deep of winter, steam coming off her hair, shaking snow from her coat, and watch every other man in the place look at the woman who had just rattled the door, the woman making a beeline for him, just like Jenny had, when they were new.” Regret runs deep in these pages, as does the pain of missed opportunities, boats gone by, ice long cracked.
Adding another layer of interest to If the Ice Had Held is that portions of its narrative are born of Fox’s previously published work. For instance, “The Car,” a short story found in Fox’s award-winning collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories, features the predicament of Brian and his wife. Even for established readers of Fox’s work, the intricate linking of familiar characters in her new novel is a gripping reimagining, one not to be missed.
And while the lyricism of Fox’s writing is worthy of praise, what I find most dazzling about If the Ice Had Held is the artistic finesse with which Fox eases readers through shifts in time and perspective. By skillfully braiding personal histories over the course of an entire novel, the novel creates a rich payoff. The pleasure in reading If the Ice Had Held isn’t so much meandering through its breadth as enjoying the spider web of connections in each chapter, which are often short, compact punches of prose. I didn’t read this book so much as gulp up its characters, their predicaments, and their histories. If the Ice Had Held poses questions that are difficult, perhaps even impossible, to answer. Still, Fox’s writing urges us to try.
Nicole Rivas (@nicolemrivas) teaches writing in Savannah, GA and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Alabama. Her chapbook of flash fiction, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, was the winner of the Rose Metal Press 12th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. For more, visit www.nicolemrivas.com.