Kirsten Reed’s debut, The Ice Age, is a short novel (little over 200 pages), an extended snapshot (if there can be such a thing!) of a period in its protagonist’s life – at one and the same time both satisfyingly complete and intriguingly incomplete.
Reed’s narrator is a seventeen-year-old girl (we never find out her name) who had not long been a hitch-hiker when she met Gunther, the older man with whom she now travels around the US, heading nowhere in particular. What might seem to an outsider to be a man taking advantage of a naive young girl is not like that in reality – their relationship is a sort-of friendship, and, at the times it becomes more than that, she is the instigator.
But all is not as well as it seems. The book’s title refers to the idea that the Gulf Stream might slow, causing temperatures to drop abruptly; the girl has heard about this, and decides that she must stay near Gunther if that comes about – so there’s some desperation under the apparently confident exterior, as Gunther represents stability, to which the girl wants to cling. For his part, Gunther knows this can’t go on, and is trying to find some real stability for his companion, by taking her to stay with one of his friends – at least, that’s one way of interpreting it.
What’s particularly striking about The Ice Age is how completely our experience of the story is shaped by Reed’s presentation of the protagonist. We don’t learn about the girl’s past, or why she has taken to the road, which gives a sense that the novel occupies an eternal present. This is further emphasised by the cool, even tone of the girl’s narrative voice, which, to an extent, elides the passage of time (one’s aware, of course, that time is passing in the novel, but only dimly; what length of time that might be doesn’t really register) – giving the reader all the more of a jolt when events suddenly take a darker turn, because it happens so suddenly.
Reed also conveys the complexity of her protagonist very well. In some ways, the girl is highly perceptive and self-aware, recognising even the multiple aspects she presents to the world:
Gunther and I, an item…Gunther and I, just friends. Me, precocious slut, tempting Gunther to nail me. Me, repentant youngster trying like hell to learn some respect for my elder(s) again. (123)
Yet, in other ways, she knows very little – for example, Gunther’s thoughts and motivations remain in large part a closed book to her (and she doesn’t necessarily realise that this is so). It’s this mixture of traits, and the narrative voice, that make the girl so convincing as a character – and that’s a large part of what makes The Ice Age such a fine debut.