Something always attracts me to stories from the American frontier where people have travelled arduous and dangerous miles to small towns to try and carve out a better life and future for themselves and their families. It almost always turns out to be something that promises much but delivers challenges and hardships anew.
In Ian Pateman’s The Ice Barn, he relates the tale of the inhabitants of the town of Hope, once a bustling town of prosperity due to the gold that was being discovered and now, with the advent of the new century and gold in short supply, it faces uncertainty about its future.
Pateman chooses to focus on certain individuals within the town and does this in such a way that the narrative unfolds with its surprises and twists springing themselves on this reader throughout. Two places in the town help to frame the narrative – the saloon and the ice barn. The saloon is a place for gambling, drinking and girls – very much a place for the living – and the ice barn is a store, not one that sells anything but one that is run by the town’s carpenter where the dead reside in the cold days of winter until the ground thaws sufficiently for them to be buried. Some of the stories are about the living and others are about the dead but all of them link because of the shared location of the ironically named Hope.
Thomas Speake, a reporter who arrives from Chicago, becomes a pivotal character, who we follow as he becomes curious about the people in the barn and slowly, connections between the dead and the living are uncovered. But Thomas may well be stepping into danger in the living world full of the blackness of humanity by delving into that of the dead.
I loved this book for the storytelling, dialogue and characters. Pateman’s narrative unfolds at the right pace and I was gripped by the things that were revealed about the town. The bullying presence of Sullivan, the saloon owner, overshadows Hope but it is full of drunks and prostitutes and desperate men, which hints that he may not be the only person with black motives.
Although the book concerns itself a lot with the idea that the past can never be escaped from, Pateman does provide an optimistic ending and this rounded off the book perfectly.
This review was first published on Reedsy Discovery where I was privileged to read it as an ARC.