Book Review: The Shutter of Snow

Posted 2 weeks ago in Book Review

Music Current 20 mar-15 apr – Mobile

Recent years have brought a wave of reissued novels by twentieth-century women writers. Tove Ditlevsen, Natalia Ginzburg, Elizabeth Hardwick and Eve Babitz are among those to have found new voice in handsomely designed republications. But can all of these novels be forgotten ‘classics’, rediscovered at last? Which will (or – whisper it – should) slip back into obscurity? Faber’s latest dip into these crowded waters looks to swim rather than sink. With unusual richness and originality, The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman – first published in 1930, rereleased this month – illuminates the troubled devotion of one lesser-known modernist writer.

Coleman’s protagonist Marthe Gail is admitted to Gorestown State Hospital with suspected ‘toxic exhaustive psychosis’ following the birth of her child. Here she is infantilised, constantly wrapped and bundled into cocoon-like spaces. She is to take six-hour baths under a fitted sheet, arms pinned behind her, legs in a sling. Chicken wire threatens at her window. She wears ‘heavy hard’ underwear emblazoned with ‘property of the State of New York’. Marthe is not so much treated as tormented, her body constantly ‘twisting’ in a bid to escape her restraints, or ‘twisted’ into submission by the nurses. In moments of respite, she forms friendships with her fellow patients, only for them to erupt in violence. Gradually Marthe moves up through the hospital, from the punitive downstairs to the more relaxed upstairs, suggesting an ascension to freedom.

“With unusual richness and originality, The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman – first published in 1930 – illuminates the troubled devotion of one lesser-known modernist writer.”

This idea of ascension is apt, as Marthe believes that she is Jesus Christ. From the blinking red lights that make the other patients appear as ‘devils’ to the purifying promise of the snow that surrounds the hospital, the novel is suffused with Christian symbolism. Marthe’s delusion of godliness is variously sad, frightening, and funny. It is sometimes sublime. Hers is the ability to create untethered from creation. She is not allowed to see her baby. But she finds refuge in art: ‘She was God she was God. It if could not be known by the singing this at least was proof. She could write again’.

The Shutter of Snow is Coleman’s only published novel (she worked on a second, ‘Tygon’, for some thirty years, but it was never released). It is based on her own experience of being institutionalised. The style builds to shuddering narration and untraceable monologues, making the plot occasionally difficult to follow. There are no apostrophes or quotation marks in The Shutter of Snow, and Marthe’s narration flits between first and third person. In this reissue’s introduction, Claire-Louise Bennett compares Coleman with male surrealist writers, particularly André Breton.

Coleman can just as well be considered an early writer of the American Catholic literary revival. Although she did not convert to Catholicism until 1944, faith’s pull is evident in The Shutter of Snow. Coleman spent the last years of her life in the radical Catholic Worker community, and it is Marthe’s mingling of fervour and rebellion which gives this novel its special power — and its lasting buoyancy.

Words: Eve Hawksworth

Emily Holmes Coleman

The Shutter of Snow



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