Book review: French bestseller set in Alaska doesn’t translate well for Alaskans


By Marie Vingtras; Translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman; ABRAMS/Overlook Press, 2024; 224 pages; $26.

First published as a debut novel in France in 2021, this small book went on to win 12 literary prizes in France, including the French booksellers’ prize for best novel of the year. It is set in Alaska, somewhere in the Interior, and is told from the points of view of four characters, switching among them every two or three pages. The story begins when a woman and boy, both new to Alaska, leave a house and disappear into a storm. The man who lives in the house goes searching for them with the help of a neighbor. Two of the characters are white men who have lived their whole lives in Alaska; one is the most recent arrival — an elderly African-American veteran of the Vietnam War.

Readers expecting a dramatic story involving a blizzard will be disappointed. There’s very little after the first couple of pages to describe what it’s like to either be lost in a winter storm or searching through one. It may be that the blizzard is best understood as a metaphor for the circumstances of the characters’ lives — for the sweeps of details that define them and the obscuring of their histories.

There are mysteries, to be sure. Who are these people, to themselves and one another? Why are they living in a remote Alaska settlement? Each chapter follows a character deeper into his or her story — nearly all back stories about their earlier lives. We learn along the way that each has experienced some kind of trauma, and each has a secret.

The greater mystery might be why this novel appears to have been so popular in France. French readers apparently are drawn to dark, violent stories. (Readers may recall that David Vann’s 2008 story collection set in Alaska, “Legend of a Suicide,” was a huge hit in France, winning some of the same prizes as “Blizzard.”) The story here is unconvincing, and the prose is unremarkable. Each character speaks in his or her voice, which explains the use of cliches, but very little distinguishes one voice from another. As with any translated work, it’s difficult for a reader to tell if inaccuracies or wooden prose belong to the original or the translation.

It seems unlikely that the French author has ever stepped into Alaska or anywhere in the north, and another mystery is why she chose to place her story in an environment with which she had no experience. (In a note, the translator thanked an Alaskan for “invaluable help,” but there’s no indication that the writer had any such help.) She relies on invoking the usual tropes that someone without any particular knowledge might default to — ”nature, wide-open space,” log cabins, “huts” and “shacks,” trappers and “big game,” hooch, snow (of course), “plenty of fish,” ice floes, “always cold” even in summer, and — most curiously — crevasses. “Crevasse” is a French word meaning “a crack or fissure in a glacier or snowfield,” but is also defined in some dictionaries as a deep, narrow opening in rock. In “Blizzard,” children have been warned to stay away from the crevasses, although there are no glaciers or snowfields in the area; it only becomes clear at the end that a rocky area (apparently without snow cover) constitutes the crevasses. Regardless, “crevasses” are mentioned more than any other local feature throughout the book.


Altogether, it takes some doing to imagine the author’s setting — very remote (“nobody to answer to, maybe not even a soul in sight for weeks on end”) with only a few homes but with roads that bring in summer tourists. It’s “land that no tree could grow on,” although other passages mention trees and references to a closed sawmill. The people in the storm are walking in what seem to be ordinary shoes; one falls off when a character trips on a stump and rolls “downhill like a snowball,” after which another character says, “The fresh powder’s halfway up my thighs.” The animals mentioned are dogs, elk (the European moose), and sea eagles.

Why in the world would anyone walk aimlessly into a storm without first checking out buildings for a missing 10-year-old or calling his name? That’s just one early example of a plot that continues to make no sense.

Back to the question of “Why Alaska?” The author, it seems, decided that Alaska was the perfect place to locate a bunch of misfits, murderers and rapists. Several times characters comment about themselves or one another as being too stupid, uncivilized or unequipped to live anywhere else in the world, or else they question why anyone with brains would live in Alaska. For the woman character, “This land that’s so harsh that only men can stand it, barely any woman would dare to make a life for herself there.” Two men, one with his own chapters and the other his sidekick, prove to be violent women-haters who think that rape is a perfectly acceptable activity.

“Blizzard” is, if nothing else, a fast read, a chance to ponder how different readers can respond differently to a single book, and a reminder that those unfamiliar with our home places can easily misunderstand and distort them.

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Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."