Review: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Nostalgia is my favorite emotion. It’s like, you think you know how to deal with the passage of time, but nostalgia will prove you wrong. You’ll press your face into an old sweatshirt, or you’ll look at a familiar shade of paint on a front door, and you’ll be reminded of all the time that got away from you. If you could live it all again, you’d take a long moment to look around, to examine knees against knees. Nostalgia puts you in this dangerous re-creation something you can never have again. It’s ruthless, and for the most part, inaccurate.


On February 15, the town of Broomsville, Colorado awakes to find that fifteen year-old Lucinda Hayes has been murdered. As the small town swirls with grief and gossip, we follow three characters—Cameron, a neighbor who loved her and may have also stalked her; Jade, a classmate who hated her for being everything she couldn’t be; and Russ, a police officer torn between his duty to serve and his duty to protect, especially to protect Cameron. As more is slowly revealed, the book begs the questions—Who are you when no one’s watching? And can you ever really know someone if you’re only ever watching from the outside?

At first, I assumed, based on the title, that Girl in Snow was a YA book. A few chapters in, I realized that wasn’t the case. Instead, the title is a nod to the way works of art are named, as we see Lucinda, left for dead on a snowy playground, through the eyes of two classmates/neighbors and a police officer involved in the investigation.

From the first sentences on, the readers knows the central point around which the rest of the book turns is the murder of a fifteen year-old girl, but no one knows who murdered her. Ok, so this book must be a thriller/murder-mystery—indeed, a quick check of Amazon has the book categorized as “women’s fiction” and “literary fiction” and then in the sub-genres of “mystery, thriller, and suspense” within each.

Except, even this genre didn’t fit neatly, or at least, does not follow the typical structure of a mystery/thriller/suspense novel in my book. The bulk of the book follows three characters and the choices they (and others) make when they think no one is watching. Far more time is spent on character development than dropping clues, such that when the killer is identified, the resolution is swift, almost an afterthought to the other sub-stories being told about Cameron, Jade, and Russ. (Which, in the interest of #nospoilers is not say that it isn’t one of them, but simply that the focus of the book isn’t on who did it as much as how these three characters are coping with the murder and the role they have in the event and the resulting investigation).

The highlight of Kukafka’s first novel is Cameron. It’s never directly stated, but his mannerisms seemed to indicate pretty strongly to me that he is on the spectrum—making collections, storing images, intensely focused, but socially withdrawn. Cameron is obsessed with watching—he prowls the neighborhood at night, watching the inhabitants, especially watching Lucinda. Though they have had almost no actual interaction, Cameron loves the Lucinda he watches. When Lucinda’s body is found, he is immediately a suspect—though he has been careful, he’s less clever than he thinks and people know he’s been watching Lucinda. Even Cameron wonders if it might be him, as the night of her death is missing from Cameron’s memory.

Protecting Cameron the best he can is Russ, a police officer who was Cameron’s father’s partner for years on the force before Cameron’s father was forced to leave in shame. Russ, more than the other main characters, has let what others see of him define who he actually is—with the result that he’s walking around half-alive, still consumed with his missing partner and his promise to keep his son safe.

Finally, we have Jade. I loved Kukafka’s little details with Jade—I may have cheered out loud at the reference to her listening to Box Car Racer and Dashboard Confessional (the book is set so that they are teenagers in the late 90s’/early 2000s’ when I was). Jade is that kid in school who doesn’t seem to have friends but also don’t seem to want them. It’s easier to reject someone before they reject you. She’s prickly and unattractive. And yet, like Cameron, she steals her way into your heart.

The last thing you want is for any of these three to have been involved in Lucinda’s death. Yet Jade hated her, Cameron stalked her, and Russ has hidden evidence to protect someone in Cameron’s family before.

These characters are what made Girl in Snow stand out from the typical murder mystery from me. I usually spend my entire time reading, trying to pick up clues. I can usually figure out the murderer and, often, the motive at least a few chapters before the big reveal. I didn’t find myself doing that with Girl in Snow. Kukafka made me care, desperately, more about who I hoped didn’t commit the murder than about who did. I didn’t spend my time looking for lots of clues, rather I waited for Cameron to work his way through his memory, hoping that when it came back it wouldn’t be him. I won’t say more and spoil the book, but turning this typical view of the mystery on its head was one of Kukafka’s better choices, as the book was richer than your typical mass market paperback murder mystery, though diehard mystery/thriller fans may find the ending rather abrupt with very few clues leading you as to both who the murderer was and why.

In some ways, by choosing the three characters she did, Kukafka chose the three anti-heroes. None of the three of them are likeable. Even the other significant minor characters—Ivan, Ines, and Cynthia—wouldn’t have been terribly likeable had their narrative been added. But then again, the more you find out about someone you’ve been watching, in many ways, the more unlikeable they become. Just as Cameron never got a full glimpse of Lucinda in his hours of watching her, perhaps love is coming to know someone, to find them unlikeable, and choosing them anyway.

I struggled more with rating this book than with others. As I noted, since it didn’t read like a typical mystery/thriller to me, it didn’t seem fair to judge it against others in that category I’ve enjoyed or think are well done. It was almost more of a straight literary fiction novel that happened to be set around a murder. With that in mind, I gave this book 3 ¾ stars—it’s well-written, tightly-edited, and Kukafka can turn a beautiful phrase, though it didn’t have the pop of something like This is How It Always Is or even Almost Sisters. It wasn’t as stand out as other lit-fics I’ve recently read, so that knocked it down a bit.

However, this was by no means a book that’s finding itself on my running list of “Books I should have abandoned” (looking at you Hillbilly Elegy). I was engaged, I enjoyed the story, and I thought Kukafka did well by her characters. I loved her gentleness with Cameron in particular. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know I can get a little heart-eyes over flowery prose—this book isn’t flowery. The prose is well done without being over the top. So while I didn’t love the prose as much as I did in something like The Heart or Exit West, I know those books also drive some readers a little nuts. If that’s you, you’ll do fine with Girl in Snow—it’s beautiful but not showy. If you generally enjoy non-standard murder mysteries and highly character-driven books, I suspect you’ll find Girl in Snow worth your time.

Published: August 1, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Danya Kukafka (@danyakukafka)
Date read: August 15, 2017
Rating: 3 3/4 Stars

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