I was so excited to read this book when it popped up for review. Sadie Jones’ The Snakes begins as an inherently creepy, compulsively readable book about family ties that bind – and choke. But then implausibility crashes in, and the last third of the novel leaves the reader woefully unsatisfied. In fact, The Snakes provides the worst ending of any book I’ve read this year.
Misfortune seems to be dogging the belated honeymoon trip of newlyweds Bea and Dan Temple right from the second Bea walks into an OxFam shop and tries to buy a bag for Dan, only to be confronted by a psychopathic woman holding both a knife and a baby. Using her professional skills, she saves the young woman’s life as well as the baby’s, but that doesn’t seem to help – Bea loathes herself deeply, due to childhood scars that have never quite healed.
Though every portent that confronts them continues to encourage the newlyweds to stay in their London flat, they leave for France for a three-month tour in a ramshackle car, renting out the flat for the extra money. They arrive in Burgundy to visit Bea’s brother, Alex, to whom she is deeply devoted. Alex is a paranoid recovering addict and a college drop-out who hopes to reopen the rundown and decrepit Hotel Paligny, a place close to condemnation that Alex insists is a highly desired as a vacation locale. He lives off of his parents’ money and seems to have no drive or purpose, remaining messily careless. Alex also seems unaware of how thoroughly stalled the restoration is, that the building has gaping-open broken windows. He is, however, aware of the mice and snakes infesting the place, including a thicket of vipers living in the attic; he’s paranoid and distrustful of the Swiss-German family living next door, and behaves outlandishly. Bea forgives it all, while Dan remains wary. When Alex, stoned out of his mind, announces that they are coming in a full panic, the sinister figures turn out to be Alex and Bea’s parents.
Griff and Liv Adamson’s arrival leaves Bea tense and standoffish, and Alex frantically eager to please. Dan doesn’t understand why his wife’s acting this way – the Adamsons seem kind and generous enough, though Griff is a bit of a blowhard.
Tensions begin to emerge in Bea and Dan’s relationship as soon as he hears just how rich his in-laws are. Bea and Dan have been living hand to mouth on both Bea’s work as a psychotherapist and Dan’s day job as an estate agent; he always assumed her refusing contact and money from them to be a noble act. But Dan’s resentful that he must work during the day instead of concentrating on art that Bea secretly judges as mediocre; when he finds out the Adamsons are billionaires, that she grew up mega-rich while he grew up abused and poor, he begins to suspect and mistrust Bea. When the tenant who was to occupy their apartment pulls out and they lose a thousand pounds of rent money, tensions heighten. Something much darker is at work under the surface, and they – like the vipers nested in the roof – only come out at night. Why has Bea cut the rest of her family out of her life? What will they do when a sudden tragedy strikes? And is there any way for the Temples to escape with their marriage intact?
The Snakes puts forth that old chestnut about money being the root of all evil, and sometimes it manages to put a fresh spin on the theme, but the last third of its running time falls to cliché and easy moralist messages. In case you haven’t noticed, the Adamson versus Temple battle is a metaphor for the poverty gap, with Griff standing in as a Trumpish, xenophobic oligarch and Dan as a representative of the starving poor, dying for the chance to be free to enjoy the basic luxury of time. Another character – whose presence is a large spoiler – will do anything to make a buck, including killing the innocent. The symbolism here is a textbook definition of the term ‘heavy handed’, and part of it is crashingly obvious, but the first two-thirds of the novel are at least gripping, with the mystery being truly surprising and the nasty feeling of decay and deceit leeching into the book’s pages. All of the initial conflicts and character dynamics work very well, and in an eerie way. And there’s an ugly reason why Alex is so traumatized, which requires me to give a warning both for depictions of disordered eating, as well as child molestation.
But then the procedural part of the book enters into the picture, and with it the worst, most cartoonishly corrupt cops I’ve ever seen. The book’s magnetic pull begins to wane as the credulity of the reader is stretched, the characters’ behavior becomes more and more unrealistic and the message of the novel more and more blunt. Combine that with an ending that dangles – and not in a way that works or is authentic, but feels like misery vomited onto a pile of more misery – and the grade plummets.
The Snakes captivates and then annoys, plunging the reader into a tense scene of chaos and misery – but ultimately provides no satisfying climax. Angst for angst’s sake is fine, but a whole books’ worth is downright boring.