Bea and Dan come from completely different places. He is a mixed race boy from Peckham, South London, trying to make it as an artist but working as an estate agent. She is the daughter of parents with multiple homes, multiple cars, who travel in private jets and stay in luxurious hotels. Dan knows Bea dislikes her parents and their wealth, and applauds Bea’s decision to live an ordinary life with him in a scruffy flat. But Bea hasn’t been honest with him, she is an heiress to billions. Welcome to the Adamson family in The Snakes by Sadie Jones.
Billed as a psychological thriller, to me The Snakes is more a story of 360° snobbishness where characters make assumptions about the lives of others based on prejudice; it is about greed and excessive consumption; moral superiority in all quarters, a conviction of being right; racism; and unfamiliar police procedures, all wrapped up in the story of a seriously messed up family. The setting in rural France is beautifully written. One of the best, creepiest scenes is early on when Bea walks alone across the fields in the summer heat and takes a dip in a nearby stream. This early action suggests that Bea is emotional, an unreliable witness; should we believe her assessment of threat and safety? And if you query her judgement in a small situation, does it follow that she is unreliable as the horrible story progresses? Should we trust her, should we like her?
Most of the action takes place at the country house in Burgundy run by Bea’s brother Alex. Bea and Dan take time off work for a summer road trip, intending to stay with Alex at Paligny briefly before heading to the South of France. But Bea’s concern for Alex, his drinking and drug use, and the strange set-up at Paligny, lead them to stay. Alex fears snakes are in the house, he sets traps and dreams they are in the attic. And then Bea and Alex’s parents – Liv and Griff – arrive, bringing with them money, privilege and expectations. Griff sends Alex on an errand, and Alex is never seen again.
I went through phases of disliking every character, distrusting every character. Dan, though loyal to Bea, cannot help be intrigued by her bombastic father who sprays money around in a way Dan has never seen. Bea is self-righteous, something of a prig, lacking in confidence in the face of her bullying father and good-looking husband. Liv is indescribable; I had no feeling for her character except for understanding the hatred she triggers in Bea. Griff is a self-made man, a bully, unaware of the effect his behaviour has on his children. Everyone is selfish.
I was left with the feeling a different novel was trying to be heard. It is an odd ending, over-milked for every dramatic moment but oddly unthrilling. Difficult to figure out, this novel is like a Russian doll splitting with too many ideas. Perhaps the issue is that everyone seems to be lying, to each other and themselves. Alex is the only honest one and the book is better when he is alive.
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