wed 19/06/2019

Sadie Jones: The Snakes review - lacking feeling | reviews, news & interviews

Sadie Jones: The Snakes review - lacking feeling

Sadie Jones: The Snakes review - lacking feeling

Nastiness and clichéd characters

Sadie Jones© Jonathan Greet

Bea and Dan are a young married couple. They have a mortgage on their small flat in Holloway and met while out clubbing in Peckham. She’s a plain-looking, modest and hard-working psychotherapist; he’s putting in the hours as an estate agent having put his artistic aspirations on ice. Typical millennials. They’re in love. Or rather, we’re told they’re in love. In fact, we’re told rather a lot of things - it seems to be the book’s mode. Dan is mixed-race, was brought up in Peckham by his mum and hasn’t been abroad all that much: “I’m a city boy, aren’t I? And I don’t speak French.” Bea, on the other hand, is the daughter of a father who made millions as a slum landlord and a mother she detests. Her oldest brother, Ed, is a Goldman Sachs banker; Alex, the middle child who has been sent to France to look after a hotel, is a child of the posh end of the nineties rave scene, a charismatic wastrel more than half way ruined through booze and drugs.

They’ve the mortgage, steady jobs and are childless. They’re free but have hit a bit of a wall  something is missing  so they decide to travel round Europe for a few months in an old Peugeot bought for cheap in Tottenham. Bea goes on sabbatical and Dan quits his job. Their first stop? The hotel in France to see Alex.

The Snakes by Sadie Jones book jacketWhen they arrive, Alex is hepped up and scruffy. The hotel is as shambolic as he is and the attic is full of snakes. He’s also got a surprise up his sleeve: his and Bea’s parents, Griff and Liv, are arriving the next day. In this suffocating atmosphere it becomes clear that Bea has been keeping things from Dan. They’ve not talked about her family’s egregious wealth, and  much though she tries  she doesn’t fully understand what it was like for him growing up poor. The differences between their backgrounds becomes a source of conflict  even before the family secrets start to make their way to the surface and the pace of events takes over.

And here lies one of the principle problems of The Snakes. It’s a book that can’t settle on a genre. Is its priority to inspect Bea and Dan’s fraught relationship? Is it a story of wealth gone awry and gross excess? Is it a murder mystery? It’s a puzzle. There are some nicely observed moments  such as when Bea “observing a shred of companionship” between Alex and Dan makes herself scarce so they can build on it. But in the main the book is driven by a kind of opaque plot energy: there’s lots of to-ing and fro-ing between England and France, numerous detailed scenes dramatising the tediousness of French bureaucracy, and the point of view shifts wildly between characters. As their relationship comes under strain, Bea and Dan’s reactions to each other become less and less credible and a surfeit of dialogue slows down what could be a pacy book if it were two-thirds as thick.

It’s all a bit flabby really, and the characters, moreover, are clichés. That in itself could be fine: patterns to work off or against allow us to make sense of the world, but these are wan variants of marvellous human complexity  paint-by-demographic. There’s no real disquiet at the nasty or boring things that happen to or are done by the cast of characters because they’ve such slender inner lives. As types, they pass, but it’s hard to feel sympathy for cut-outs.

@_kwaters_

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