The Little Snake by A L Kennedy
Have you heard of A L Kennedy? She has won the Costa Book of the Year award (with the novel ‘Day’) in the UK, and her last book, ‘Serious Sweet’, was longlisted for the 2016 ManBooker prize. Sadly, she probably not a household name in New Zealand, but her dark gritty stories have been around since the early 1990s. In case you think she sounds too serious, she has also written a Dr Who series and performed stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe. She is heavily addicted to political ranting on Twitter. Look under @writerer.
The Little Snake is quite unlike anything else A L Kennedy has written. You can read it on so many levels; modern day fairy tale, allegory on the state of the world, futuristic dystopia or even as a story you could read to your children with just the faintest hint of sinister.
The central character, Mary, lives in an apartment block in a crowded city. A “remarkable, wise little girl”. She and her family have a rooftop garden, no bigger than a table cloth. Mary has learnt that if she takes very, very tiny steps, it will take ages to cross her garden, and in this way there is no end to how big it can feel. Most people in the city are squeezed-in, but in the distance, she can see the homes of very rich;
“…and they had larders as big as living rooms and living rooms as big as meadows and probably meadows in their basements that were as big as small countries with jewelled rollercoasters and golf courses made of cake.”
Even though many people are squeezed-in, they still fly flags and kites from their roofs. Some like birds of paradise, others like fish or wonderful serpents. They are a marker, as time passes, conditions in the city deteriorate, and so the kites become tattered and vanish. The little symbols of hope are gone.
Into Mary’s childish world comes a snake, a beautiful golden snake with jewel-like eyes. Almost no-one but her can see this snake, and they become the best of friends. The snake can protect her and even send her beautiful calming dreams. Oh, and the snake can talk. While the snake feels very protective of Mary, it is decidedly less so of other people. In fact, in many cases it is the bringer of death.
The snake will often have to leave, and when it does many months or even years will pass before it returns to be with Mary. Behind the child-like story the deeper messages are all about friendship and loneliness. Mary gives the snake a name, Lanmo. The snake, normally so self-reliant, finds itself missing Mary and the unconditional love that she gives. It learns a little about love, in a world where it is always seeing fear. No-one else likes to find a snake in their life.
This is a short book. I suggest you read it twice, and see how many new ideas and images you notice on the second reading.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Allen & Unwin Canongate, RRP $24.99