Danya Kukafka begins her debut novel, Girl in Snow, by asking her readers to look at a dead female body. Despite how it sounds, it’s actually common, our societal default, to view a female primarily as a physical object, to neglect her humanness and see instead “her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs,” as one of the novel’s narrators says of the fifteen-year-old Lucinda Hayes. Kukafka attempts to subvert preconceptions, principally of what is expected of the thriller genre, but succeeds more pointedly in destabilizing the biases toward illegal immigration, mental illness, law enforcement, and presentations of sexuality sewn into our country’s fabric.
The novel begins on a well-trodden path: a beautiful young woman dies, and it is our responsibility, the book’s necessity, to identify her killer. Every member of the small Colorado town where it is set is consumed with the pursuit of truth; the world revolves, perhaps as it always has, around honoring the golden girl. In 2017, a time of heavily publicized police brutality against people of color, where known perpetrators walk free and continue to occupy positions of power, this setup takes on greater significance and scrutiny. The book’s victim is white, she has “Popsicle-stick thighs,” she inhabits a “Lysol house…with hospital corners and dimness settings for the dining room chandelier.” Kukafka is aware of this privilege; if she were not, the book could not withstand the contemporary moment in which it is meeting its audience. Instead, it acts as a fulcrum in the exploration of the prime murder suspects: a man who immigrated illegally from Mexico and an adolescent with mental illness.
Societal expectation is a central focus of Girl in Snow, which is told by three rotating narrators: Cameron, the adolescent suspect; Jade, a classmate of the victim, who is decidedly not a friend; and Russ, the police officer overseeing the case. These perspectives work to reveal increasingly nuanced portraits of the victim herself, the suspects, and the town’s fervent hunger to name a killer. That hunger is perhaps also linked to grief, which hovers over the book with the same fervor. In death, Lucinda exists much as she did in life, as a manifestation in other people’s minds, an artistic rendering, an object of both desire and jealousy.
Kukafka expertly plays with the idealization of the golden girl, with what it means to be seen as female. One of the more surprising aspects of the book is its audacious dissection of this femininity. Though Girl in Snow is conceived on a female’s death, even that event is not casual happenstance. Things do not simply happen to Kukafka’s female characters; her characters happen to things. The primary acts of recurring violence in the book occur between a mother and daughter, acts of physical brutality over the failure to fulfill societal notions of beauty. Across town, in a different household, there is a striking exchange between a mother and son about fetishized female bodies in pornography: “She was a woman. He was a man. This would always exist between them. She could lecture him all she wanted—about fake breasts and loving people gently, differently—but all this aside, neither of them had any control over what kind of man [he] turned out to be.”
In the presentation of what is and is not beautiful also comes a suggestion of value, of who is worthy of respect and humanity and justice. That question has perhaps never been more relevant than it is now. We must ask it of ourselves and of the art we both make and consume. In Girl in Snow, the necessity to condemn Lucinda’s killer is inherent, as she is, to the town: indisputably a victim, she is a beautiful, thin, white body. So we must turn to who is correspondingly vilified, the perceived others: an immigrant and an individual with an unspecified mental illness. It would be an easy and reckless choice to use these as gimmicks or plot devices. Kukafka, instead, explores consciously, albeit dangerously, prejudice, challenging her readers to acknowledge their own preconceptions.
The police officer, Russ, is married to a Mexican immigrant who came to America with “a valid Border Crossing Card and B-2 tourist visa.” Though the two live under the same roof, Russ knows little of his wife’s history. The immigrant who becomes one of the central suspects in the murder case is her brother, and it is only then that Russ begins to comprehend the gravity of his oversight: “[He] almost begged her then—tell me about home. Tell me how you got here. All the stories Russ had heard through work about the border—none of them specifically belonging to [his wife], whose journey he had never heard…. He wanted to ask her why, why would she leave what she’d known.” Often these stories are left untold, these narratives about people coming to this country, because basic questions are not asked, because there are far too few attempts to see the other as human instead of as alien.
Compellingly, Kukafka does not leave us, as we are often left, without the knowledge of that story. Instead, she uses inventive means to probe her characters in other portions of the book where we are not expecting to find them. This is done artfully in her rendering of mental illness, through the lens of Cameron, the adolescent murder suspect. We learn early on that he looks like “the sort of kid who would bring a gun to school.” That is the type of destructive label that can have the effect of propelling someone to fulfill that expectation: the prophecy of failure or violence or familial inheritance of wrongdoing. Cameron often enters an emotional state he refers to as tangled, an attempt to name an unnamable experience. By providing her readers with a word linked to an abstraction, we are able to start to make sense of it. We do not lose Cameron to our imaginations; we follow his mental journey because we have the tools to trace the complexity of his thinking.
This attention to the varied interiorities of the novel’s characters is explicit in its form. In Cameron’s narration, Kukafka names the movement between his states of tangled and untangled and incorporates numbered lists to present his processing. In Jade’s, perhaps the novel’s most imaginatively and absorbingly composed, the prose merges into screenplay, allowing Jade to play out what she wishes she could do or say, or have said or done to her, through renderings of an alternate reality. Those renderings are deeply satisfying to the reader because they allow for catharsis and honest communication often rare in real life. Russ’s section has less formal experimentation, but nicely evolves with his increased understanding of his emotional limitations.
In many ways, the book responds to our cultural norms of self-presentation and societal expectation. By weaving these narrative perspectives together, all directed at the image of a dead female body, we gain heightened intimacy and understanding of three unique psychologies and are also forced to reckon with our own preconceived notions of beauty, gender, mental ability, and various manifestations of power.
The characters in Girl in Snow often rail against the ways they are perceived, but are nevertheless begging to be seen, asking for an audience; they seek a space to express themselves. This duality, of wanting to exist while not wanting to be categorized or wrongly labeled or objectified, is as much the novel’s core as the murder mystery itself. Kukafka is shrewd to remind us that as readers, we too are indulging in the spectacle. “How can you claim to be sad?” one character asks another of the murdered Lucinda. “You barely even knew her.”