Writers use all kinds of props in their novels. Some use repeated phrases or images to foreshadow or echo or develop an idea. Or they might, as I did, alight on concrete objects that take on meaning during the writing process and, somehow, become utterly indispensable to the story being told.
In Snegurochka there are three quite ordinary, everyday items – late twentieth century ‘consumables’ – that acquire a strange and almost hallucinatory significance.
The first is a box of After Eights. I love them, and what I love most is the packaging. Those dark, waxy sleeves, packed with sweetness yet delicate as gills… Who can resist? Rachel, my main character, hides hand-written notes inside them as a child. As young mother she is given a box by a stranger and the impulse returns.
When I first travelled to Kiev as a young mother myself I didn’t take enough books. Once I’d finished the fattest book I could find – A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth – there was little else to read and I was desperate. Then my father-in-law sent me this.
I remember the intensity with which I devoured it, hungry for words, for story, for anything to alleviate the tedium of sleepless nights and long days in a high-rise flat with a baby. Rachel, on the other hand, forgets to pack a book – she’s not a great reader – but on the journey out to Kiev she picks up an abandoned copy of Jurassic Park. The novel takes hold of her and becomes – something else.
The third item is a pack of Pampers nappies. I took two suitcases of Pampers out to Kiev. Once they’d gone I relied on whatever I could find – unfamiliar brands imported from the Baltic states or Norway that leaked or wouldn’t stick. Rachel, however, is more particular. She wants Pampers in neat piles in the drawer beneath her bed. She needs them.
After Eights, Jurassic Park, Pampers – three branded products – each, in their own way, ubiquitous and banal. That’s why I’m drawn to them. Things are rarely as ordinary as they seem.