‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings

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.

This is my 28th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 19th for #AWW2016.

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17 thoughts on “‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings

  1. I used the words ‘taut’ and ‘incisive’ in my review… which just having re-read, I feel bound to say …
    you know that book I’m reading, A Brief Take on the Australian Novel? In the chapter I read this very morning Vernay comments about how this theme of marriages under stress in the bush is a common one. I haven’t got time to look for the quotation right now, but I’ll be noting it in my review because I can think of quite a few novels that do the same.

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    • It’s actually an example of an almost perfectly written novella, I think. And I suspect you could read it several times and come away with new meanings and new insights, because it’s such a “rich” book.

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  2. Always a fan of the novella anyway, reading your review this is a must buy for me! I really like the power of the unsaid, and admire greatly the authors who can orchestrate it well – given that & the premise I can’t wait to read it. Great review Kim!

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    • I love a good novella too… and this one evokes such atmosphere despite the bare prose… there’s hardly a adjective in it. And the good news is that this one is still in print and available in the UK.

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  3. I read Moral Hazard some time ago which made quite an impression on me. I found it absolutely gripping. It’s also written in spare, striking prose. Snake’s now on my list.

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    • Oh, I’ve been eyeing that one up… but I can’t really justify buying any more Australian books right now. So much for whittling down my TBR… it just keeps getting higher and higher. But I’ve definitely added Moral Hazard to my wishlist.

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  4. This sounds like a profoundly affecting read. I’m not good at broken marriages in books since I got married (which is stupid, as we were together over a decade before that and I could read anything!) so will have to wait a while longer before facing this one, but will keep it on my radar.

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  5. Putting this on my list of novellas-to-read, and my list of books about marriage! It does sound heart-breaking, especially with children involved.

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  6. I love this novella too, and scarily it is drawn closely from life. It is a great example of spare writing, and has such ability to peer into the psychology of its characters.

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