Tuesday 9 June 2020

Twenty in '20: The Snakes

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty books in 2020. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

9/20: The Snakes by Sadie Jones

The blurb: Newly-weds Dan and Bea decide to escape London. Driving through France in their beaten-up car they anticipate a long lazy summer, worlds away from their ordinary lives.

But their idyll cannot last. Stopping off to see Bea’s brother at his crumbling hotel, the trio are joined unexpectedly by Bea’s ultra-wealthy parents. Dan has never understood Bea’s deep discomfort around them but living together in such close proximity he begins to sense something is very wrong.

Just as tensions reach breaking point, brutal tragedy strikes, exposing decades of secrets and silence that threaten to destroy them all.

The review: the name Sadie Jones might ring a bell with you. Her 2008 debut novel, The Outcast, won all kinds of awards and was adapted for television by the BBC. It's very good. So, too, is The Snakes.

An interesting thing here is the blurb - these so often fall into hyperbole, overselling the book. Here, that is not the case - indeed, it almost undersells. I know it's hard to avoid spoilers but... (spoiler alert) there's a murder in this book (the "brutal tragedy"), in the wake of which a tangled web of power, corruption and lies unravels...

Like so many of the writers I admire, Jones has a concise prose style that wastes no words. This, when applied to quite emotional content, can be disarming. There were several moments, reading this, where I had to lower the book to my lap, take a breath and think, "Blimey." And yes, that's partly down to the twisting, sinusoidal path of the plot (snake-like, perhaps) but also thanks to that disarming quality that Jones's writing has. I've been thinking a lot about how she achieves this, and I think it's something to do with a change of pace in her prose - dropping a line of aching beauty or stunning imagery into an otherwise functional paragraph, for example. Do this too often and it might grate, but Sadie gets it right, so very right, every time. Its a real, and very enviable, skill.

Another interesting aspect of The Snakes is the way in which the author plays with your feelings about the characters. Bea is the novel's heart, the likeable, relatable heroine in a book populated with unpleasant characters. But her husband, Dan... your mileage may vary, but my opinion of him was up and down like a yo-yo, from likeable everyman to shallow and flawed, and back again. In the end, you conclude that he's essentially decent but just a bit messed-up... and so is probably the most realistic, relatable character in the whole thing.

The ending of this book has attracted a lot of attention, and comments from online reviewers, many of which seem to be along the lines of "how could it end like that?" But for me, I don't see how else it could have ended. No, it may not appeal to readers who want everything tied up in a neat bow, with a happy ending for everybody. But I'm not interested in pat, feelgood endings. This ending feels real, and so what if there are some loose ends? The crux of the story is resolved - you might not like it, but that's how it is. And if you're the sort of reader who expects to feel a sense of loss after finishing a good book... well, this is for you.

The bottom line: gripping and unusual story, part family drama, part suspense, played out in Jones's glorious prose, scalpel-sharp and laser-guided. The best book I've read this year.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★★

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