Snake by Kate Jennings

DATE FINISHED: July 25th, 2012 

RATED: **** (4.5)

SYNOPSIS:  This is the story of a marriage between polar opposites, dissatisfaction snaking through it from the start.  Rex is a solid man of earth, accepting of disappointments, and simply looking to settle into his own corner of land.  Irene is flighty as the air and soon resentful of the man and life she has tied herself to.  As the children grow up, Rex and Irene grow further apart under a scorching, suffocating sun.

THOUGHTS:  This deceptively simple story is built up through a chain of vividly realised images – the stark landscape, the hollow lives, the hope and the melancholy. Jennings effortlessly portrays a sense of looming darkness and stultifying claustrophobia under the expansive horizon of the outback. Her characters come alive through perfectly judged, vividly visual images of moods that are instantly recognisable, yet full of surprises and unexpected humour, too.  Each chapter is titled as though it stands alone as an individual prose poem, and they do: the chapters are short, concise, pointed, but utterly earthed, and each illumining a thought or deed which shapes the emerging story.

“Irene’s moods filled the house; there was no escaping.  Rex was pinned by them to the walls, pushed into corners.  Leaving the house did not make it any better; everywhere, sweeping blue sky, an horizon that stretched to the back of beyond, and yet he was suffocating.”

Reined in by the social expectations of the post-war period, Irene is tethered by somebody else’s idea of domestic bliss. She is young, selfish, restless, and unable to grasp the bigger picture. Rex provides stability and the wrong kind of freedom. He is equally trapped, incapable of reacting against his hostile environment where the children, too, are foreign animals to him.

Snake is a portrait of the protracted disintegration of a marriage and the increasing desperation of the people within it.  Bleak though it sounds, this novella is startling in its clarity and power: the ultimate anti-love story.

FOLLOWING ON: The oppressive, shimmering heat of the outback reminds me of Oyster by Janette Turner Huspital, while the period, small town community, farming life and dry marriage are closer to Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany.  The relationship between Rex and Irene also reminded of Billy’s parents in The Voices by Susan Elderkin.  The slow build-up of story through individual tableaux is mirrored in Sixty Lights by Gail Jones.

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