2022 Newsfeed

‘Snowflake’ – an exploration of one’s first, terrifying steps towards adulthood

A copy of Louise Nealon's Snowflake, alongside a phone playing an audiobook version and a cup of coffee
A book with no plot, that manages to say a lot a university student would resonate with.

Louise Nealon’s Snowflake, published as her debut novel in 2021, is a story with no antagonist, or curse that’s shadowing over the land. It’s portrayed as an ordinary story revolving around an average girl who goes through the same thing so many of us need to go through, eventually shifting into university studies.

Despite this ordinary premise, I think this book is magical as well. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a book where I’ve felt as seen and represented as this. By the time I finished reading this book, I felt like it was a story written precisely for me. I believe that a lot of university students would view this story in the same way too.

Snowflake never feels like it falls flat. In fact, it might be the best thing I’ve ever read. It’s both charming and funny in its own right. Coming of age stories like this rely on the element of relatability in their narrative skeleton more than anything else. It’s essential to this genre’s core to be able to see a character’s relatable flaws, and their struggles to fit into their environment, whether it be new or old.

When I read it, simply as an attempt to encourage myself to read more like I used to, I eventually really empathised with the struggles that the main character faced.

Debbie White, an 18-year-old Irish girl, is anxious, disorganised and forgetful. The exact opposite of what we get told an adult should be. Debbie is presented as someone who is quite well aware that she’s not the greatest at dealing with responsibility, and I think that’s a valuable perspective to observe in a coming of age story like this. That very element of her character alone captures the essence that a lot of young adults feel.

An excerpt from page 71, where Debbie showcases her tendency to lose things, and immediately lose focus and become an anxious wreck.
An excerpt from page 71, Damsel in Distressed, highlighting just how much Debbie can be rattled by her own disorganisation.

From the start, Debbie is presented as an outcast in life. Not in the sense that she doesn’t have a social life or a family that supports her, but more because she doesn’t really know who she is yet. I immediately connected with this feeling and saw a lot of similarities between my own thoughts and behaviours and Debbie’s.

I can go a whole day in the city without talking to anyone. I frequently disappear on the train, in the Arts block, on the streets of Dublin. I sit alone in lectures. I go as far as getting coffee from vending machines to avoid interacting with people. After spending my first couple of days trying and failing to find friends, it feels better now that I’ve made the conscious decision not to talk to anybody at all.

‘Snowflake’ pg 47, the opening to ‘Cover Girl’ chapter

Debbie is fresh out of a high school where she had friends, but never really connected with them. She spent the entire duration of school drifting between friendship groups without feeling she belonged in any of them. This was another way I deeply resonated with the character, because these struggles through the early years of high school were a very real experience for me as well.

The closest the book gets to featuring another character from Debbie’s school days is a shy boy that Debbie never spoke to, however, she was infatuated with him for a period of time. Debbie still seems to have a crush on him, despite never getting to know him as anything more than an imagined fantasy.

The city of Dublin, Snowflake's primary setting, as the sun sets.
Snowflake tells the story of a young woman growing up in the Republic of Ireland, attending the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin where she studies English (Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash)

She manages to find a small, similar group of people at Trinity College, where she’s enrolled to study English. She meets a pair of girls, including 21-year-old Xanthe Woods. From this point as a reader, it feels like Debbie is accepting that she’ll use this group to just ‘coast by’, but never really connect with them. Xanthe begins to challenge Debbie to exit her comfort zone and engage with other people, encouraging Debbie to start feeling more confident seeking friends. As the story goes on, Debbie notices that Xanthe is actually in a losing battle with undiagnosed depression.

Xanthe ended up being one of my favourite characters in the book, mainly because her struggles with depression are something very real, and very difficult to face, that countless young adults who also suffer from depression face, including me. I found that her persistence in encouraging Debbie to get better at connecting with people, while also being one of the most broken people in the book was an intriguing aspect. This friendship, through its highs and lows, adds an interesting layer to Debbie’s journey of finding her identity and coming to peace with it.

The University of Canberra campus, completely empty and quiet.
Debbie attends a campus much like the University of Canberra’s but goes out of her way to avoid other people. A university campus is a very large space, particularly if you avoid seeing anybody. Image by Matt McFarlane

Debbie’s family situation isn’t much better. She lives on a farm in the county town of Kildare, roughly an hour outside of Dublin, with terrible internet and not much to do. Furthermore, her mother, Maeve, has slowly begun to distance herself from reality and has become obsessed with the idea that her dreams are trying to tell her something. They also live with Debbie’s uncle, Billy, a worn-down and pessimistic man who is trying his best to encourage Debbie to not fall into the same rut.

There’s an example of this situation early on in the story, when Debbie is completely overwhelmed by her new environment. She even tries to find a way to justify dropping out of university, using her lack of a laptop as her excuse. Her uncle buys one, claiming it’s for the whole family to use so he could justify the expenditure (which their family couldn’t afford). Billy’s actual reasoning was that he wanted to make sure that Debbie would have it for university.

He doesn’t expect much in return, but asks Debbie to push through and continue with her studies. Billy is by far the most cynical person in the whole book, although, there are many moments where he is notable for being Debbie’s biggest supporter.

“I didn’t apply for my grant on time.”

“Why’s that?”

“I’m allergic to reality.”

“You’re going to have to get over that. Is there a way I can pay your fees for this year.”

“You can’t afford to be doing that.”

He fills the kettle by the snout. “You can’t afford not to go to college. You want out of here.”

Pg 24, just one example of Billy’s insistence to encourage Debbie.
An excerpt from the audiobook of Snowflake, read by star of Netflix’s Derry Girls Louisa Harland, detailing a trip a young Debbie takes into the city with her uncle Billy (excerpt obtained from the YouTube channel of Snowflake’s publisher, Bonnier Books UK)

Her mother Maeve tries her best to help, but Debbie really struggles to connect with her. The book never treats Debbie’s mum as a comic relief character, nor does it ever villainize her. She’s a character whose sanity is on the brink at the best of times, and Debbie and Billy are left without an idea of the best way of coping with it. It’s one of the more well-told plot threads seen throughout the book, and is the root of a lot of the emotional highs and lows as well.

My mother has been asleep for most of her life. Mornings lie beyond her realm of existence. Her alarm goes off at midday. It plays ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark on repeat. She wakes up in time to make dinner for the lads at two o’clock. After dinner, she goes back to bed. Today is Sunday, the only day of the week Mam needs to wake up early, for ten o’clock mass.

Pg 39, opening of ‘Tabernacle’ chapter.
A pen writes down onto a piece of paper.
Debbie studies English at Trinity College, showing a keen interest in stories developed through years of storytelling being one of her main bonds with her mother Maeve (Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

Snowflake is a book filled human stories, with characters who have an abundance of dimensions and layers to who they are. Louise Nealon did a great job of making them feel different and unique from one another. And Debbie is the perfect choice for a main character because of how she connects with all of them.

There’s no one who shows themselves to be Debbie’s ‘rival’ and there isn’t a big climax at the end of the story. This is just the story of a young adult who doesn’t feel like she’s ready for the future ahead of her. Furthermore, she hasn’t really got an idea of who she is or who she wants to be. She struggles with almost every relationship in her life, and this book showcases the slow but eventual progress of Debbie learning to overcome them.

I think the quote on the cover of the book from fellow Irish author John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) summarises the book perfectly. “Snowflake is a novel for anyone who’s ever felt lost in the world.”