Four people arrive for a wedding in Pathankot, Punjab, one year on from the 2008 financial crash. They are an elderly white man, Jackson, and three others: Yosh, a yoga teacher; Monica, a Canadian-born amateur photographer; and Reema, a classical singer with a hard choice to make. All three have Indian ancestry and are carrying their own quiet conflicts of displacement and belonging. The white man, Jackson, has had many homes over a long life; even so, he holds his identity intact – his place in the world is secure and his dark past well behind him. He is carrying his wife’s ashes and hopes to scatter them in the Ganges when the wedding is done; as a younger man and hydraulic engineer, he worked and lived in the Punjab with his wife, and they were happiest there.
Tessa McWatt. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images
Far away, and yet ever present, the Himalayas and the jagged icing of the snow line loom high and mysterious over the wedding festivities. In a few short pages, Tessa McWatt deftly draws together characters, place, ideas. While a wedding is a celebration of Eros, it can be awkward, even awful, for single people. For days rather than hours, these four guests are forced together by the happiness of others. As celebrations begin, an anti-Eros story develops, too, between Jackson and Reema. Decrepit and “light as paper”, he is instantly charmed by Reema’s clear-eyed youth. Paired up early on by circumstance but resistant to all he represents, she is repulsed by the hairs sprouting from his ears and the slack skin under his chin; even so, she drags a chair across the lawn to sit next to him. We find out later, in one of the gaps in history that McWatt writes into, that a dam built by Jackson displaced thousands, including her family.
In a recent essay, “States of Mind”, McWatt said that “My writing has always centred on belonging and its opposite.” In her previous book, the memoir Shame on Me, she unflinchingly examined her own upbringing, which involves both privilege and oppression (she has Chinese, African, Indian, Scottish, Arawak, Portuguese and French heritage). McWatt is a writer who tackles race and identity with great nuance, and from a very broad reach. Her debut novel was about a young adopted woman searching for her roots in Montreal; in her third book, a 60-year-old Guyanese-Chinese woman is adrift in London; while in her fourth, a young black man is murdered in Spain. The confidence and subtlety of The Snow Line suggest that she has done a lifetime of thinking and reading about structural injustice; most notably, in this book, drawing on the politics of caste and the writings of BR Ambedkar, a Dalit who converted to Buddhism in the 1950s and inspired other mass conversions.
When the wedding party comes to an end, the four find themselves on an unlikely adventure. Reema feels obliged to help Jackson scatter his wife’s ashes; Monica and Yosh come along for the ride. Their journey is a trip upwards, towards the Himalayas and the snow line. It’s here that the narrative begins to shift, as the mystic energy of the mountains looms into the awareness of the characters. Suddenly, we are in a sacred part of the world. Place dominates; all nagging human concerns feel smaller. Like the characters, we are gently hypnotised by the terrain. McWatt manages something rare, which I can only call “invisible writing”. There’s meaning here between the lines – about the magnitude of spiritual places, and the presence of love, and even God. Jackson, for his part, has experienced an epic, lifelong love. And in one simple exchange, Reema questions Yosh about music:
“My family is very practical,” Yosh says finally. “No one sings.”
“But you like music?”
A short pause before he says, “God’s there.”
The Snow Line is about the displacement of people, the stories that never get told, the commonality of our humanity, and the ever presence of God. We don’t feel the full effect of its rare wisdom and gravitational pull until we are finished. The final pages had me in tears.
Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch is published by Vintage. The Snow Line by Tessa McWatt is published by Scribe (£14.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.