Source: Review copy
Publication: 20th February 2020 from Vintage
Bea and Dan, recently married, rent out their tiny flat to escape London for a few precious months. Driving through France they visit Bea’s dropout brother Alex at the hotel he runs in Burgundy. Disturbingly, they find him all alone and the ramshackle hotel deserted, apart from the nest of snakes in the attic.
When Alex and Bea’s parents make a surprise visit, Dan can’t understand why Bea is so appalled, or why she’s never wanted him to know them; Liv and Griff Adamson are charming, and rich. They are the richest people he has ever met. Maybe Bea’s ashamed of him, or maybe she regrets the secrets she’s been keeping.
Tragedy strikes suddenly, brutally, and in its aftermath the family is stripped back to its rotten core, and now neither Bea nor Alex can escape…
From the outset, you know that The Snakes is not going to be a smooth or pleasant read. The focus of this book is a young, newly married couple, living a normal London life. That is to say, they are renting in a not great area, struggling to get by and with absolutely no prospects of doing much better any time soon, thanks.
Bea Temple is working as a psychotherapist. She met her husband, Dan at a street gallery where he was exhibiting his work. But Dan can’t meet his share of the bills by working as an artist, so now he is an estate agent, hating every day that he dons smart garb and heads out to work; knowing that the life is being sucked out of him and with it, any talent he has.
Dan is handsome, buff, even. Bea is quiet, unassuming, and has the kindest nature. Dan has had enough of selling his soul and he persuades Bea that they should take their meagre savings, rent out their flat and take off to Europe for three months. Bea, who can’t deny Dan anything, consoles herself with knowing that she, at least, can take a sabbatical and return to her psychotherapy role.
The Snakes is a riveting story of relationships, marriage and family; a story of power, corruption and abuse.
I have some issues with this book, and specifically with the way it ends, but none of that should detract from what is an intense and very powerful read that slowly builds up tension until it becomes almost unbearable and you know that something has to snap.
Sadie Jones has an ear for dialogue and her portrait of the conversations in Dan and Bea’s marriage feels so true that it is often painful as we see how much Bea wants to please Dan, despite any misgivings she may have.
Setting off on their trip, they head for France to visit Bea’s brother, Alex, who is managing a hotel in Burgundy. That’s when we, along with Dan, realise the extent of the wealth that Bea’s family has. She comes from a wealthy background, Dan knew that and always respected Bea’s decision not to take money from her family. Bea’s father is the owner of numerous companies and every time one has gone bankrupt, he’s found a way to transfer the assets to another. Griff is the worst kind of businessman, morally bankrupt and only interested in his children if they can help him to keep his dodgy dealings look more wholesome.
Bea’s brother, Alex, is a poster child for the damage this kind of parenting can do. Mentally fragile, with dependency issues, he is living in the dilapidated French hotel, a nest of snakes in the roof, pretending he has the wherewithal to do it up, but really just existing.
When Bea’s parents, Griff and Olivia, arrive unannounced the whole dynamic changes radically. Griff is all presence; overbearing, demanding, making assumptions about Dan and Bea’s relationship and generally throwing his weight and opinions around. Liv is clinging, weak and hiding the bitterest secret of them all. It is a secret that Bea knows about and she will never forgive her mother for it.
In more ways than one, this is living with a nest of vipers. Dan is astounded by the extent of Griff’s wealth and he soon finds ways to convince himself that being a little more comfortable couldn’t be so bad…
The Snakes deals with the social divide between those who have and those who don’t; between those who know how to play the system and those who never will. From the beginning we see the consequences of Bea and Dan’s choices play out catastrophically through the story. It is as though Griff and Olivia are an evil Adam and Eve and the snake is the least harmful element of the story.
Money is pernicious and these family relationships are dark, dysfunctional, festering and pustulating. These characters are so well drawn that they draw you in to their world until you live their experience. The setting is perfect and the story fascinating in a car crash kind of way.
Verdict: There are so many strong elements to this book that I am very glad I read it for all that it is unremittingly bleak. For me, it was somewhat let down by an ending that felt it didn’t quite fit the book, but that should not detract from some exceptional writing and brilliantly malign characters.
Sadie Jones is a screenwriter and a #1 Sunday Times bestselling author. Her first novel, The Outcast won the Costa First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. It was also a Richard and Judy Summer Reads number one bestseller and adapted for BBC Television. Sadie also wrote: Small Wars (2009), The Uninvited Guests (2012) and Fallout (2014). Her fifth novel, The Snakes, was listed as ‘March book of the month’ in The Bookseller.