Snow Country (Austrian Trilogy 2) by Sebastian Faulks

Hearts and minds…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As a younger son, Anton Heidick is expected to stay at home in his small town in Styria and take over his father’s sausage-making business. Anton wants to go to Vienna to study though, and his parents don’t stop him although they refuse to support him financially. So he works his way through by tutoring the young son of a wealthy family, and there he meets Delphine, who is paid to teach French to the daughter of the house. This will be the beginning of a love affair that will have a major part in shaping Anton’s future. On leaving university, Anton decides he wants to be a journalist, and gradually builds a small reputation as a foreign correspondent, sent off to witness major events around the world. But it’s now 1914, and the clouds of war are gathering across Europe…

We meet Lena in the late 1920s, and learn of her difficult childhood as the child of an illiterate and often drunken woman, who earns a living partly through prostitution and partly by working as a cleaner at the Schloss Seeblick, a kind of mental health sanatorium in a mountain valley in Carinthia. Lena too makes her way to Vienna, where she becomes involved with Rudolph, a young left-wing activist. But things don’t work out as she expected, and when her mother dies she returns to Carinthia, and is offered her mother’s old job at the sanatorium. It is to here that, a few years later, Anton too will come, firstly to write an article about the sanatorium, and then to seek help for his own mental health problems, a leftover from his experiences during the war years.

The underlying plot in this is rather slight, based around Anton’s love for Delphine and Lena’s search to find a place for herself in a world that hasn’t shown her much sympathy or opportunity. But the story is in some ways simply a vehicle to allow Faulks to show us various aspects of Austrian society and to create a general picture of the period from just before the First World War to within sight of the Second.

Anton and Lena are the main characters, but three others play significant roles and give us different perspectives: Delphine, a Frenchwoman who will find herself living in an enemy country when the war starts; Rudolph, the young socialist that Lena is involved with in Vienna, who allows us glimpses of the complex political situation in this part of Europe; and Martha, the daughter of the founder of the Schloss Seeblick, who now acts as both administrator and therapist, and who gives some insight into the development of psychoanalysis in Austria in the wake of Freud’s theories. Unusually for contemporary fiction, all of the characters are likeable, and all are fundamentally decent people trying to do their best, despite their normal human weaknesses and flaws. I found that deeply refreshing, and was happy to find myself totally involved in each of their stories.

Anton’s career as a journalist also takes us to other places, giving little vignettes within the main story, designed to show the state of the world at this uneasy time. He visits Panama to witness the completion of the canal, and muses on the roles of France and America, the rise of the new powers in the world and the decay of the old. He casually mentions the workforce, treated little better than slaves, but as a man of his time, he accepts this without much question. Later he attends the trial in Paris of Mme Cailloux (a real person), wife of a prominent politician, who stands accused of shooting the editor of Le Figaro. This gives Faulks room to give an excellent picture of France just before the war, with half the population wanting peace and the other half clamouring for war to wipe out the stain of past defeats and show that France is a major power yet.

I would have happily had a whole book of Anton travelling from place to place, showing us the world through major news events. The sudden change to Lena’s life makes sense and works well in the end, but on the whole I didn’t find her life as interesting at Anton’s. However it’s through her relationship with Rudolph that we see the rise of extremism at both ends of the political spectrum initially, before fascism won out. Rudolph’s story also lets us see the growing resentment between the politically sophisticated and relatively wealthy Viennese urbanites and the people of rural Austria, poorer, less well educated and with fewer opportunities.

Sebastian Faulks

I feel I’ve made this book sound horribly heavyweight and a bit polemical, so let me correct that. Faulks writes with a light hand, and all these background events are never allowed to stop the flow of the human story of our characters’ lives. There are some tragic incidents which are treated with welcome restraint, some occasional humour to lift the tone, and affairs of the heart – not hearts and flowers romances, but grown-up, complex relationships with a feeling of truth about them. Of course I have some criticisms – perhaps a little lack of depth, too much discussion of Freud for my taste, a rather too neat ending – but none of these seriously affected my overall enjoyment. I was completely absorbed throughout and sorry to leave the characters behind when the last page turned. Apparently the book is the second in a loose Austrian trilogy, although each also stands on its own, and I’m looking forward to going back to read the first, Human Traces, and seeing where Faulks takes us in the third. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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41 thoughts on “Snow Country (Austrian Trilogy 2) by Sebastian Faulks

  1. As you know, FictionFan, I always think that the most engaging way to read about history is to see it through the eyes of those who live it. So this book really interests me in that sense. And I can well imagine how interesting Anton’s travels must be. The characters sound appealing, too, and to me, that’s important, especially in a story like this. That’s a really interesting period of time, too – right on the cusp of the war, and with all sorts of sociopolitical movements going on. Little wonder you liked it so well.

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    • I liked that he showed life before and after WW1 without getting bogged down in the conflict itself, which has been done so often now – not least by Faulks himself! And the Austrian setting was interesting too – a change from the usual UK/France/German vision of the war in Europe. And it was such a joy to have a group of characters I actually liked and could care about!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve still read very little Faulks, and funnily enough Birdsong was the one I enjoyed least. Partly though I think that’s because it was one of the first modern WW1 novels, and there have now been so many it didn’t have the impact it might have had if I’d read it when it came out. This is my favourite of his so far, except for his wonderful Jeeves and Wooster pastiche… 😀

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  2. I agree with Margot. Reading fiction is my favorite way to learn about history. And this sounds very good. It isn’t out here in the US yet, it seems, so I will wait awhile and possibly read Birdsong, which has been on my TBR eight years now.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fiction really humanises history in a way weighty history books can’t. I like both but I certainly enjoy fiction more! Birdsong is well worth reading, but I actually enjoyed this one more, maybe because Birdsong covers fairly well-worn territory whereas this felt a little different with the Austrian setting.

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  3. That you didn’t want to leave the characters is the highest praise I think and I love it when that happens, and all decent characters that you cared about too, that is refreshing! I’ve read On Green Dolphin Street which I thought was brilliant but for some reason didn’t read any more, strange!

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  4. ” perhaps a little lack of depth, too much discussion of Freud for my taste”–For some reason, this made me laugh out loud.
    This book sounds great. So glad it is so great. I find the notion of a “loose trilogy” intriguing, especially since I am working on a “loose duology” which has a tie only to the setting, rather than to the situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, to be honest *any* Freud is too much for me! 😉 I love loose trilogies/duologies, etc., far more than the kind where they don’t stand alone (which I tend to think of as three-volume novels rather than trilogies, but I think that’s just me). This one is only linked by the place and roughly the time, I think – the characters don’t seem to travel through the books.

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  5. Ah, I hadn’t twigged that this one was connected to Human Traces which I’m afraid I didn’t get on with at all. I felt Faulks had really wanted to write a history of psychoanalysis and had tried to funnel all his research into a novel instead. Snow Country sounds better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s only loosely connected by the Austrian setting, the rough time period and the psychoanalysis stuff, which happily was relatively low key in this one – though still a little more than I wanted. Hmm, Human Traces may well not work so well for me either if that aspect takes centre stage, but we’ll see! I always find his writing style enjoyable, so hopefully that’ll carry me through…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I would love the historical aspect of this novel, but I’m just not sure it appeals to me that much otherwise. I’m glad it pleased you enough to want to read the others.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve only read Engleby by this author, which I had mixed feelings about. One part I thought Faulks did very well was getting inside the mind of a proper psychopath. This story sounds completely different. I probably should try one of his other books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read Engleby, but I quite enjoyed Birdsong and liked Paris Echo more. This one is my favourite of his so far, though. I guess a lot of it comes down to existing interest in the subjects he chooses – I’m in a between-the-wars groove at the moment, so this one fitted well!

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    • I’ve only read a couple of his other books plus his wonderful Jeeves and Wooster pastiche! This is my favourite so far – he does seem rather variable. I’m not sure about Human Traces if it concentrates too much on psychoanalysis, which isn’t a subject I’m much interested in, but if I decide against it I’ll pick one of his others – he has an extensive back catalogue to choose from!

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  8. This sounds excellent – I agree about the likeable characters, so rare in contemporary fiction but so much more enjoyable to read about! Somehow I’d got it into my head that Faulks was cloyingly sentimental, so (other than his Jeeves and Wooster novel, which I loved) I’ve never read anything by him. However, I get the impression that you are just as allergic to that type of writing as I am, so I must have misjudged him. I’ll definitely be looking up his work!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I really hadn’t realised how much I miss likeable characters until I found myself actually caring about what happened to these ones and hoping they would all find a happy ending! I find his endings can be a bit too neat, and yes, a bit sentimental, but the books themselves aren’t. They’re also not too grim and gritty, which I’m also fed up with – they fall somewhere in-between, and that works well for me. If you want to try him, this is definitely my favourite so far, though I’ve only read a few.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I can definitely see why this book appeals – and what a welcome change to have decent characters to follow who don’t feel the need to be terrible to others! So many people seem to just be doing the best they can, and truly think they are good people, so focusing on these types of characters does seem realistic to me, especially during a time as fraught as the early 1900s.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I hadn’t really realised just how unusual it is in modern fiction to have all the characters be basically decent, even if they are flawed or damaged, until I found myself really enjoying that aspect in this book. It used to be pretty standard – most characters were trying to be good people, except for the villain!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you find it as enjoyable as I did. It was so refreshing to have characters I actually liked and cared about – a thing that shouldn’t be rare, but feels as if it is! And the historical background is done very well.

      Liked by 1 person

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