The narratorial voice of Welcome To The Goddamn Ice Cube is as cold as the title suggests, and as cold as the place Blair Braverman, our guide and author, keeps coming back to. Malangen, Norway is a small spit of land north of the arctic circle (“north of the moral circle,” one leering man tells her) surrounded by ice, lush forests, and mountains that encircle the water like teeth.
It takes a certain kind of person to choose to live here. Most are born and stay; many leave. But our narrator is good at being alone — in a town full of men. She’s cautious, she’s harsh, and she’s stubbornly unsentimental. At one point, she says, “The water was sweet and piercing cold. It made my knuckles ache. It tasted healing, I thought, and then I corrected myself, embarrassed at my own emotion. The water was water. The place was a place. It was no more healing than a kiss to a bruise.” In spite of herself, her descriptions of conversations and moments of sympathy betray her feelings. It becomes increasingly clear that Braverman feels a deep, sentimental love for the people of Malangen, especially an old shopkeep named Arild, who, in a sense, takes her in and gives her a place in the stark landscape. And, just like that, without much fanfare, Braverman becomes a part of their small community, helping Arild in the shop, going fishing with the local teenagers, being invited to dinners, bonfires, parties.
When Braverman first returned to Norway, she came as a student and an outsider. The first time she mentioned going to the shop that would become her home away from home, her classmate said, “‘You go in there […] and everyone looks up, and they just watch you.’” But even after she was a regular, she continued to command attention. She was a woman, and no matter how Norwegian she looked or sounded, she was indelibly an American. Foreign.
Indeed, that is the feeling of Braverman’s narration. She feels outside of herself even, but with each turned page, a layer is removed until by the end of the book she is exposed and vulnerable. That openness is something I had wanted from her for a long time, and when I got it it felt like a victory. Over the course of the story, we learn that Braverman had suffered a series of traumas, including rape and emotional abuse, and leaving California for Norway or Alaska or somewhere else equally cold was a way to numb those feelings, to make space to think, to wipe away the memories with large expanses of sky and white.
It’s hard not to graft that abuse onto Braverman’s extended poetics. Her fascination with certain stories and certain circumstances feels weighty. She lingers on a party anecdote about a haunted house. When the family moved, the ghost pursued them. The mother, when asked if she would get rid of the spirit if she could, pauses, then shrugs. We’ve gotten used to it, she says. Braverman lingers on Arild’s lambs, pursued by crows who try to eat out their eyes while they’re still alive. One is even named after her. Blair, the sheep.
Still, even at the end, even with this inescapable haunting, she downplays what she’s been through. She writes,”some harassment by an authority figure, a few sexual remarks, pressure from an insistent boyfriend? What woman hadn’t experienced those things? It made me the same as everyone else, and luckier than many. It was just a natural result of being female and living in the world. And if you added up the moments of fear, the comments, the touches—well, they certainly weren’t traumatic. Not for me. Not for a tough girl.” Again, in a matter of sentences, she eats her words. She betrays her own trauma with her enduring lyricism and shows that it’s not the trauma that makes her a woman, it’s her strength in spite of it.
It sounds like I’m describing a tale of healing, and partly I am, but by the end it feels like a love story. She’s learned to love herself, sure, and this strange place, but leaving Arild at the airport to return to America feels like heartbreak. With tears in his eyes, he says, “‘I’ll have some peace and quiet at last […] finally free of that American pia, she who plagues me constantly.’
‘And I’ll be free of the old man,’ I told him, and walked away before I cried, too.”
To make a friend like that is a kind of triumph over pain, and to capture that feeling in words is another triumph still.
Welcome To The Goddamn Ice Cube is dedicated to Arild. It is published by HarperCollins and will be available on July 5.