The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas
Sandstone Press (2021) £8.99
A Review by Cynthia Rogerson
Reading this novel brought to mind both Muriel Spark and Anne Tyler. Something harsh and true, presented sincerely and with intelligence and consideration.
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line is a measured narrative from the point of view of Sybil, a young Londoner who’s not having a very good time. First she gets a concussion in a freak ice skating accident, then almost immediately the love of her life dumps her in favour of her old nemesis, Helen. Things steadily decline from there, but Sybil’s account is not melodramatic or cliché. Her tone is even funny sometimes, but mostly bewildered.
One of the hundred reasons this novel cannot be dismissed as chick lit, is the literary angle. Sibyl tries to climb out of her black hole by taking a class called Poetry for the Terrified. Sprinkled throughout her story are her attempts at haikus and her lists of words which might go into a poem. Poetry anchors her to the world and gives her tools to notice it.
Another one of the hundred reasons this novel cannot be dismissed as chick lit, is that the story takes place mostly in a museum. Ancient history informs every chapter, and more – it forms the plot. Sybil works in the Royal Institute of Prehistorical Studies, and while her job is relatively low-level, her research and findings are pivotal to redressing the pain Helen has caused. Almost unconsciously, Sibyl addresses big questions such as: What assumptions do scientists make simply to make a splash? What role does morality play in a highly competitive field like archaeology? What can we really know about the distant past from studying what remains? Overtly, she suspects Helen of lying professionally, and hates her anyway because she stole her boyfriend.
But I didn’t care about that, as much as I cared about the mental and emotional well-being of Sybil – a narrator who seems unaware of the extent of her own fragility. I worried about her. She does not confide in anyone except the reader, giving an honest, sometimes painful account of how loneliness feels, and jealousy, and nostalgia, and loss of confidence. She does not dwell on her brain injury and the possible long term effects of concussion, and this makes her seem even more vulnerable.
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line, as a title and theme, has echoes of Oku no Hosomichi’s work called The Narrow Road North. We are all travelling, according to Hosomichi, and even the journey itself is travelling. Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. And because the author is Ruth Thomas and not Helen Fielding, the end of the journey is one that actually feels both credible and optimistic – not an easy combination to manage. But then, I’ve found this to be true of all Thomas’s books. Each one is unique, but all have her trademark low key intelligence and warmth.