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Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

girl in snow

Girl in Snow is Danya Kukafka debut novel exploring how a small town in Colorado reacts after the most popular girl in school, Lucinda Hayes, is murdered. Three characters share the spotlight as narrators: Cameron, Lucinda’s stalker; Jade, a unpopular girl whom Lucinda was indifferent to; and Russ, a police officer who is in love with Cameron’s dad. As they tell their stories, we learn about their relationships with Lucinda and their grief, longing, love, and obsession.

What is Girl in Snow, really?

Girl in Snow is marketed as a thriller, but I think that’s an overly simplistic categorization of the book. It’s got a strong literary bent, complete with symbolism, masterful use of language, and deeply-written characters. Additionally, the structure and pacing of the book are more oriented toward character arcs than “thrill” or plot. Marketing it as a thriller does a disservice to the book’s strengths and sets many readers up for disappointment. I’m not speculating or trying to be mean—just read the top Goodreads reviews, which include opinions like “it really didn’t hold any of the aspects that attract me to that type of story [a thriller/mystery],” “incredibly slow moving,” and “quite a bit of extra writing.”

The goal of a thriller is to answer a burning question while taking readers through many twists and turns along the way. Girl in Snow indeed has a burning question: Who killed Lucinda Hayes? (And why?) But this question isn’t really the focus or point of the novel; instead, the point of the novel (at least as I read it) is to explore the grief and loss felt by others after her death. In short, it’s less plot-driven thriller and more literary character-centric novel. I don’t think this is a bad thing; it works very well, if you come to the book with an open mind. Kukafka balances between literary and thriller very well, but readers who are expecting a straight-up thriller will likely be disappointed.

To a reader expecting a fast-paced thriller taut with tension and fear, Girl in Snow will seem painfully slow. Kukafka turns the focus to characters and paces the novel deliberately; readers learn about how the murder has affected others instead of learning about who killed Lucinda or why. Even then, instead of focusing on the detectives investigating Lucinda’s death or the murderer or even Lucinda’s family, Kukafka lets three characters who barely know Lucinda narrate the story. This character-driven approach to the narrative brings to mind Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You or even 13 Reasons Why as we explore a high school girl’s death along with those grieving her, but from more detached points of view than these other stories offer.

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It’s not about who did it—it’s about who didn’t do it.

Kukafka focuses so little on the murder itself that we sometimes forget we’re reading a book about a murder. The main characters don’t really feel a sense of immediate danger. There’s talk in the periphery about parents being worried about their kids’ safety in the wake of the murder, but there’s no physical threat to Russ, Cameron, or Jade. throughout the novel, we’re really not sure what to think about the actual murder itself. There’s very little mention of the detective work that goes into finding the murderer, which is incredible considering one of the three narrators is a police officer. But Kukafka sidesteps the traditional police guesswork and puts the spotlight on her characters, teasing us with emotional suspense.

Kukafka plays with the questions of nurture vs. nature and short-term memory loss to make readers question whether Cameron could possibly be the murderer. But she also sprinkles in hints from Jade that suggest that it wasn’t him. We don’t want it to be Cameron, yet much of the book deals with Cameron fearing it is him as he can’t remember that night and knows his father had violent tendencies. Kukafka’s exploration of Cameron and her characterization of him through his own narration as well as Jade’s and Russ’s is compelling; we want to confirm that he didn’t do it. Until the last few pages, we are kept wondering if the answer to the question “Who killed Lucinda Hayes?” might be Cameron.

That twist though…

The twist at the end—revealing the murderer to be Mr. Thornton—feels a bit like the ending to Broadchurch’s first season. The murderer is technically a character we’ve been aware of all along, but there is practically no way we could have figured it out unless someone told us. There aren’t really hints of Mr. Thornton’s involvement scattered throughout the novel. This works with the theme of seeing but not knowing; we see Mr. Thornton, just as Cameron saw Lucinda or Russ saw Ines, but we don’t know what’s happening internally. Kukafka limits our vision as a reader by carefully selecting the narrators on the outside, who watch but don’t know the truth (or at least don’t until Cameron remembers). As Kukafka writes toward the end of the novel, “Sight was useful, and also beautiful—but it was not necessarily truth.”

This is both brilliant and frustrating as Kukafka applies it to the question of “Who killed Lucinda Hayes?” When you finally find out that Mr. Thornton killed Lucinda, you want to skim back through the novel and find the hints; but then you realize there are very few hints that it was him and that that is the point. However, we never get the satisfaction of figuring out who did it ourselves. (If you did see this coming as you read, please comment and tell me how??) We never get the sense of closure of understanding why Mr. Thornton killed Lucinda. We can only watch along with Cameron’s memory of the night and see what happened. But we, as readers, will never understand exactly what happened between Lucinda and Mr. Thornton. Kukafka’s subversion of this main element of a thriller is fascinating to trace throughout the book.

The disappointing build-up of Lee’s ‘big crime’

The build-up to revealing Lee Whitney’s crime felt overstretched, especially when it’s revealed that he only beat someone up. For the first half of the book, I wasn’t even sure if he was still alive. It’s possible I missed a hint or two, but for several chapters, I thought he might have been killed. When Kukafka reveals that Lee was arrested (and acquitted!) for beating up the girl he was having an affair with, I was disappointed. I was expecting something more dramatic to justify 200 pages of suspense: rape, murder, multiple murders, etc. It felt unnecessary to withhold the details of the crime from the reader until page 203, although it does work toward the emotional payoff of Russ’s character arc.

I didn’t realize what was happening with Russ’s storyline until it was too late and it was happening. But unlike the frustratingly slow build-up to revealing Lee’s crime and revealing the murderer, Kukafka timed this arc well. Although I (somehow) didn’t see it coming until that scene with Lee and Russ in the car on the cliff, looking back throughout the novel, it’s easy to pick up the hints, and the reveal and emotional payoff feels earned. Russ’s motives throughout the novel all make sense as that scene clicks into place, and it’s emotionally effective.

‘Crystalline prose’

When I saw “crystalline prose” on the jacket copy for the book, I scoffed. But once I started reading Girl in Snow, I realized (to my delight) it was true. Kukafka’s use of language and style of writing is so perfectly tuned to the characters and story that you don’t notice it—you see right through it, like crystal. Her style of writing doesn’t feel stilted or overly functional, as the writing in some faster-paced thrillers does. The wordplay and symbolism of Lucinda’s name was not subtle—it literally means light or illumination—but it worked. It was clear from the beginning of the novel that Lucinda was a “light” for Cameron. He saw her, he was attracted to her, like a fly to a light bulb, but he didn’t really know her.

Even down to the language used in Girl in Snow, Kukafka’s writing ties back into her themes and characterization and ultimately shapes her debut novel into an excellent literary thriller.