Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 154 pages; 2001.
Sometimes it’s the things that aren’t said which make a book more powerful than a verbose, overly written one. That’s certainly the case for Kate Jenning’s debut novella, Snake, which was first published in the UK in 2001.
A portrait of a marriage between two incompatible people in postwar Australia, it’s written in bare, lean prose — the word “skeletal” comes to mind — and yet the story has an intensity that only comes when the author has taken the care to make each and every word count.
A novella in four parts
Snake comprises fragmentary “chapters” reminiscent of the style used in recent novels, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, some of which are only a page long, and is divided into four parts.
The first part introduces us to Rex, whose wife Irene despises him and whose children ignore him. It’s written in an almost scathing tone of voice, but its second-person style is not indicative of the rest of the novella: it simply sets the scene for what follows. Or rather, it tells us how this man’s life has turned out after many years of marriage, which begs the question: how did it all go so drastically wrong?
That’s fleshed out in the rest of the novella, which, in part two, rewinds to the wedding day: one that brims with promise even if “man-crazy” 20-year-old Irene has rushed down the aisle without proper regard for whether the union is likely to be a long-lasting one. In just 13 pages (and six chapters) we get an overview of the newly married couple and their respective parents from a variety of perspectives — and it’s clear this is not going to be a love match made in heaven.
Perhaps Billie, Irene’s bridesmaid, sums up the mismatch best:
Her eyes skipped over the guests until she located the groom, whose name was Rex. He was chatting with Irene’s parents, a handsome fellow with a gentle manner and a modest row of medals pinned to his uniform, and of interest beyond his role as groom, being freshly returned from the Victory March in London. Billie found it easy to understand why Irene had fallen for him. But, poor lamb, he did look bewildered, rather like a schoolboy who’d lost his lunch money.
A failed marriage
The rest of the book follows the course of the marriage through its ups (of which there’s not very many) and its downs. The couple settle in an old house on an 800-acre irrigated farm that once belonged to Irene’s father. It’s 500 miles from the nearest city — and Irene hates the isolation, especially when her first child, Girlie, comes along. (A boy, named Boy, follows shortly after.)
Before long she takes her irritation out on all those around her — “Irene’s moods filled the house; there was no escaping” — while Rex, who wonders if there might be something wrong with this wife, only loses his temper when he’s been goaded into it; he mainly remains quiet. This is the routine to which their lives fall, and not even infidelity and other distractions (gardening, a new job at the local radio station, raising the children) can break the pattern of bad behaviour and non-communication.
While there’s plenty of black humour throughout, it’s heartbreaking in places, for the absence of love not only marrs their marriage but it also affects their children, neither of whom seem to have much respect for their parents. It seems pertinent that the snake, usually a symbol of fertility and the creative life force, is used throughout as a metaphor for the poison at the heart of the union between Rex and Irene.
In its examination of lives sullied by disappointment, contempt and regret, Snake is a commanding novel: one that will leave an impact. And despite its flat, matter-of-fact prose style, the narrative reads like a series of hypnotic poems brimful of acute observations and eloquent language. I read it in the space of an afternoon and when I came to the end it felt like emerging from a powerful dream. More please.