Kate Jennings’ novella has periodically appeared on my radar for the last few years, particularly as I came across the anthology of poems she edited Mother, I’m Rooted (what an great and unforgettable title!) in my feminist readings at uni. Snake is also a poetic work, with chapters (collected under four parts) so brief they veer towards prose-poems.
It opens with the character of Rex, a man who cannot inherit his family’s farm because it is needed for his brother. His lonely life is narrated through the second person, which served to keep the reader at a distance from Rex, just as his family does.
Part Two opens with Rex’s marriage after WWII to a woman named Irene, and a section which captures Irene’s personality in a few brief lines: ‘Billie was noticing how Irene, in her excitement, kept forgetting herself. She’d break into a stride, causing the silk of her wedding dress to pull tight across her thighs. Thus checked, she reverted to smaller, more ladylike steps. The next minute, though, her gait widened, and she was off again’ (21). Who knew a piece of fabric could do so much? It acts as a template for much of Irene’s behaviour in the rest of the work.
In Part Two, the reader is still held at length through different perspectives on Irene, from her bridesmaid Billie, sister Daphne, her parents and parents-in-law, from Rex and then finally herself, but mediated through third person. Part Three is also in third person, narrating Rex and Irene’s relationship to the plot of land they have settled upon: Rex loves it because it has irrigation and is full of water, while Irene established a flourishing garden. However, her lack of stimulation festers into discontent with, and finally hatred at, Rex. She could ‘go for days without speaking … Then, in the bedroom, the children asleep, she unknitted her lips and words poured from her, black as pitch’ (42). Despite this bitterness and her infelicities, Rex decides to stay with her.
They have two children, Boy, whom Irene adores, and Girlie, who irritates her. Irene finds a job in town and some off-beat friends, some of whom Rex doesn’t take to. However, just as Rex cannot understand Irene, neither does she understand her husband. After various natural calamities on the farm, Irene blithely comments ‘The insurance will pay’ and Rex ‘looked at his wife, baffled anew by her insensitivity. Of course the insurance will pay. That wasn’t the point; his work was shredded’ (96). Farming is never just farming, but artistry as well, albeit in a country not designed for it.
In the final, brief section, the voice reverts to second person from Irene’s point of view, closing with her question to Boy, ‘Where did the years go?’ in a tone that ‘isn’t plaintive, as might be expected, but querulous and accusing, as if you had no part in it, as if someone stole the years from under your nose’ (137). It’s a bitter ending to a bleak book whose characters are constrained by a conservative society and an environment, both physical and emotional, to which they are unsuited.
Snakes writhe throughout the book. Boy attacks one with an axe, Girlie is terrified of them, Irene watches out for them while hunting for wild asparagus, and Rex decapitates them in the irrigation channels with a shovel and ease. Essentially they act to reinforce the characters: Irene’s biting of her husband, Boy’s adventurousness and Girl’s timorousness, and Rex’s adroitness as a farmer.
Having grown up in the country, the characters, settings and snakes were familiar to me. I know of those such as Rex’s parents who thought that ‘people who spoke in consecutive sentences were indulging themselves; they were of the same order as tipplers and gluttons. Remarks beyond those necessary to get things done passed their lips are rarely as cacti have flowers, and were as startling’ (16). Likewise I know people like Rex, who was simple and wanted stillness and nature, and Irene, who was a fast women who wanted dalliance and dash, and was cramped by the country. And maybe this is why, despite its beautiful language and a carefully crafted sentences, the book didn’t do much for me. Perhaps if it was longer and the characters had more complexity, I would have enjoyed it more.
Also, I can’t read a book about the country now without thinking about Indigenous people. There were none on these pages, except in their absence. At a conference in Prato earlier this year, an academic from Germany told me about her PhD student who was researching Australian novels in the wake of Mabo, and found that they were describing the landscape in a completely different way, obviously with more consideration for Indigenous issues. And of course, there are more and more Indigenous authors being published which also influences the way we look at land and its history. Perhaps my problem with the novella was simply that it was dated.
Book details: Jennings, Kate. Snake. Collingwood: Black, Inc., 2011.
Borrowed as an eBook from Brisbane City Council Library.
This is my 8th review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge