Book review: Snake Ropes

AN exhibition at the Freud Museum in London last month would have made a perfect metaphor for this novel.

The pieces by Louise Bourgeois that hung over the couch of the great father of psychoanalysis and were displayed in his various rooms – weaving looms and finely wrought embroideries, images seemingly stained with blood and amniotic fluid – might have come straight off the pages of first-time novelist Jess Richards’s tale of sexuality, repressed memory and the hidden secrets of the womb.

Snake Ropes tells the story of Mary Jared, a half-literate young woman who lives with her father and baby brother on a lonely island in a mythical present, and who spends her days working on the finely stitched “broideries” that she trades with the “tallmen” who come from the mainland with food and sustenance. On one of these barter visits, Mary’s beloved baby brother, Barney, is stolen away – to join the ranks of the other boy children who have been press-ganged abroad, lost to the island forever. Richards has a lovely sense of Mary’s speech and person as the novel opens, revealing the gorgeously idiosyncratic cadences of a character made fresh for this story and this story alone:

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“The tall men in boats are coming. I see them through the window, close to the beach. My little brother is sat on my lap. Him puts hims hands on the table, leans round and looks up at me. Hims brown eyes have my reflection inside.”

This is confident writing, abandoning traditional punctuation and grammar for its own texture and sound, creating in a few words an entire world and discharging its own peculiar vocabulary upon it. “Shush now, and dun even breathe if them opens the cupboard door” says Mary as she hides her brother in a failed attempt to keep him safe.

Mary’s mission to find the boy becomes enmeshed with that of another girl, Morgan, whose family have come to live on the island but are kept apart from its stories and traditions, and whose life comes to influence Mary’s – without either girl being aware of the reasons why. Then we are introduced, in one overly convoluted tale after another, to a plethora of myths and fables that surround both girls’ lives and those of the women of the island, all spells and runes and hidden notebooks. Stories that, yes, do knit up together, by the end of the novel, into some kind of unified whole, but whose effects have nothing of the pure certainty of those opening lines.

The problem is in the writing. The promise that was laid out when the book began is undermined by a lack of prowess that has less to do with Mary’s half-speech and lack of education than with her creator’s literary pretensions. So, sentences supposedly spoken by Mary become a hybrid mix of her sensibility and language and style that has come from somewhere else entirely. Encountering the wrecked ghost of herself, Mary responds thus: “She drifts through the pink fence, sifts through the front door like she’s made of black smoke, climbs the stairs…She’s at this door. I judder as she sieves through it.”

This kind of paragraph describes the entire novel – overly rich and poorly handled (a “drift” to a “sift” is one thing. But a “sift” to a “climb”? There’s simply too much going on in every sentence – too much plot, too many details – and the writer is so busy keeping up she fails to pay attention to the integrity of the syntax and character we put so much faith in at the beginning. Instead Snake Ropes busies itself with stories within stories that whirl and knot before us in a wild sampler of different fonts and page layouts – textual gimmicks that make us lose contact with the force of the book’s central idea. All a great shame as there is so much of such promise here.

How interesting it would be to see each of the chapters here edited and re-worked to find the music and gravity that is there in that opening paragraph and those first few brief pages. And perhaps what we might find then would a book of short stories, rather than a feverishly worked out whole. The author biog, tells us that Jess Richards was “born in Wales in 1972 and grew up too fast…” Well, she’s been published too fast, too. Snake Ropes is the work of the subconscious, alright – with its many images of ropes and trapdoors and dark cellars, mechanical details and damaged textiles that are as good as anything Louise Borgeois might have imagined. But though there are glimmers of the finished thing that might one day sit alongside those other great pieces, the book Richards has provided here is not yet art.

• Kirsty Gunn is professor of creative writing at Dundee University. Her new novel, The Big Music, is published by Faber next month.

Snake Ropes

by Jess Richards

Sceptre, 342pp, £18.99