Author: Jess Richards
Review: Snake Ropes was nominated for the Costa Prize, which to me always seems like a good indicator for a book being worth reading. Hats off to Jess Richards for pulling that one out of the bag on her first published novel. Anyway, this was on my To Be Read list for a very long time before I actually managed to get round to it, then it’s actually been a wee while since I finished it – apologies blog readers, this term has been demented – anyway, even now I’m a little bit undecided on what I thought of it. I read that this book was reminiscent of some of A.S. Byatt’s fairy stories – it’s a strange thing how fairy tales are apparently designed for children when at their core are some of the darkest and most disturbing tales in our culture. Reducing them to mere fodder for the young ‘uns generally means peeling back their distinctiveness and leaves only a shiny Disney spinning toy, its true beauty lost. Walt Disney turned stories of dystopian terror into meaningless drivel about a girl becoming a princess by doing little more than sitting on her behind … you don’t have to be a hard-core feminist to see the problem there. Don’t get me wrong though, I still enjoy the bit in Cinderella where the mice all start to sing.
There are definitely no singing mice in Snake Ropes, it is a definite Grown Up Fairy Tale. Mary is the main protagonist although her chapters alternate with that of her supporting lead, Morgan.
The two of them live in different parts of the island, a place that appears on no maps and which is visited every month by the Tall Men who trade fish with the men and ‘broideries’ with the women. From these, the islanders get their supplies. The people of the island rely on the trade to survive but something is going wrong, the balance is shifting. Boys are beginning to disappear from the island and although Mary tries to hide her younger brother Barney from the Tall Men, on the day that their boats arrive, Barney vanishes. Cue creepy music.
The island is drawn as a very primitive society, Mary speaks not of family but of ‘belonging people’, the patterns of speech are idiomatic (she uses a lot of pronouns ‘hims’ rather than his). I read an interview with Jess Richards that she had begun writing Mary as an exercise in a Creative Writing class and to be frank, that is what Mary seems like for quite a lot of the time. It’s a little bit too-clever-by-half and not terribly organic. I was reminded of Witch Light or Corrag as I gather it was re-released as. This also features a protagonist speaking in dialect but as a more experienced writer, Fletcher is able to pull this off with far greater ease. It was interesting though that like Fletcher, Richards also included a secondary narrator (in this case Morgan), as if acknowledging that too much Mary might be a bit of a strain. Oddly though, I actually found the opposite to be the case – Morgan seemed fairly redundant. I think that Richards mis-stepped by giving her a mystery of her own – it never seemed resolved and by the end I wasn’t sure why it had been included. Mary’s story was far more involving and I wasn’t terrifically interested in Morgan but the loose end niggled.
I had a really difficult time suspending my disbelief while reading this book. This is not something that I usually find tricky. It’s a magical school where people learn to be witches and wizards? Fine. It’s an alternate universe accessible through windows in the sky? Fine. It’s another medieval world where seasons last for years and they have dragons and creepy zombies? Ok … I suppose … fine. But … it’s an island off the map but somewhere in the Hebrides which traders visit and give things to in exchange for essentially worthless embroideries and fish? And nobody ever says anything about it? And now and again their children come and live in our ‘normal’ society? Richards, you’re pushing even my flexible credulity. I could have coped if she had set it in parallel with the Victorian age, but making it clear that the Tall Men live in a world with computers and keyboards made it seem a bit much.
Still, Mary’s passionate search for Barney did catch my imagination – when her Da returns to the house, Mary senses that he knows more than he is letting on and says continuously Tell me tell me tell me tell me tell me. She also seems to have a mysterious ability to read people’s secrets from metal, so as part of her search, she steals people’s keys to find out the liars – strangely, this was one thing that I could suspend disbelief over. Her love for Barney, deeper than even she realises, is what gives this book its heart. There is a darkness, a horror, an evil at the core of the story that lingers in the imagination. Although there were times when I thought this book was distinctly bumpy, I did catch myself thinking about it while teaching doubling to my Maths group. To make this clear, I am a committed teacher and I do not habitually daydream, so this is a compliment to Richards rather than a criticism of my work ethic.
This was not a perfect read but I think that given time and a bit of polish, I can see that Richards is an author with a great deal of potential. There were some astonishing images created in this novel – I found the idea of the Thrashing House a very potent image, the place where the women of the island take criminals where they are turned into something which symbolises their crime. I also thought that Richards had created a fascinating society predicated on a matriarchy; women hold the power, they are the ones whose names are put on graves, along with any children that they may have had, the women are the only ones who learn to read and the only ones permitted to enter the Thrashing House. Still, it took me a while to realise that this was the key to the dialect – women can use the active pronoun ‘she’, but a man can only ever use the inactive ‘him’ … see what I mean about it being slightly too-clever-by half? As an added bonus sure to creep out most men, the rags that they use during menstruation are considered to have a special power. I read a lot but I’m struggling to think of another book that I’ve read recently with such a strong message of female empowerment. When the women of the island come together to finally punish the Tall Man you just know that this time, he doesn’t stand a chance.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t the dark moments. When Morgan reads Mary’s mother’s diaries, it is genuinely distressing to read about the secret that lurks in the dark gaps in Mary’s memory, that Shadow Mary who holds the ‘murdered memories’. The twist about Mary’s past was not a surprise, I think that from the maths I was actually expecting it, but it was handled well. I have had massive ‘rape-story-fatigue’ recently, I stopped watching Downton Abbey when I heard that Lovely Anna the housemaid was going to be attacked, but Mary herself rejects the role of rape victim, not wanting the other women to see her in that role. As a reader, I felt Mary’s trauma keenly enough that I was ready to celebrate as she began to heal. And when I got to the moment at the end when Mary hears the footsteps on the ceiling overhead, I felt like cheering. I feel as if I’ve been really critical of this book but despite its flaws, this was an incredibly atmospheric read. I came away from it really wanting to give Mary a hug but knowing her, I have no doubt that she will be absolutely fine. God speed Mary, give Barney a kiss and clutch him tight.
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