In her “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble, Kate Jennings used excerpts from her first novel, Snake, to convey her childhood experience of growing up on a farm in the Riverina region of New South Wales. She had, she wrote, an “unhappy mother, diffident father”. Snake is the story of such a mother and father. While the novel is not totally “true” to her life in the factual sense, I have read enough novels and memoirs (such as Jill Ker Conway‘s The road from Coorain) about rural Australian life to know that it is “true” to the sort of experience it describes.
The blurbs on the back of my edition include the following descriptions: “a string of prose poems” (Times Literary Supplement) and a “domestic dystopia” (Sydney Morning Herald). The novel – novella in fact – is intriguingly structured. It has 4 parts. Parts 1 and 4 are short bookends, told in second person: the first part is addressed to the father and the last to the mother. The middle two parts are told in the more traditional third person voice and chronicle the life of the family: Rex the ironically named father, Irene the mother, and Girlie and Boy, the children who are caught in the middle. The chapters are short, some being only a paragraph or two long, and present vignettes of the family’s life rather than a simple this-then-that chronology. Dystopian is, unfortunately, an accurate description of their life. As Daphne, Irene’s sister, guesses on the wedding day,
Rex was a nice enough chap but about as interesting as a month of rainy Sundays. Irene will be bored with him before they arrive at the Blue Mountains guesthouse for their honeymoon.
While we never hear from Daphne again, she was not wrong. Rex is a “good man”, “decent”, a farmer of simple needs, while Irene, as her father realises, “dances to a tune no one else hears”. Not a likely recipe for success.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Despite its unusual mix of voice and rather episodic form, it has a strong narrative that drives us on to its inevitable (but no spoiler here) conclusion. The snake motif runs through the book. Snakes are a fact of rural Australian life and so are a natural, real presence in the book, but their symbolic allusion to temptation, deceit and danger lurks behind every reference. Early in the novel, we are told of Irene’s youthful romantic tendencies – her love of
Later, Girlie looks at snakes in a book on Australian fauna: they are “fanged, flickering, unblinking”.
Kate Jennings is a poet – as well as novelist and essayist – and it shows. The language is accessible but full of imagery. This is particularly apparent in the chapter titles, most of which are obvious in meaning, though some are more cryptic: “Home is the first and final poem”, “Send my roots rain” and “My mother has grown to an enormous height”. They are fun to think about as you read. There are some beautifully apposite descriptions. Here for example is Rex experiencing misgivings about his new wife:
The sight of her caused his nature – practical, honourable – to assert itself … What was done was done. Without being conscious of it, he coughed importantly – I am a man, I have a wife – and squirmed inside the jacket of his uniform until it sat better on his shoulders.
And here is Girlie reading:
Girlie read books like a caterpillar eating its way through the leaves on a tree.
Their town is, ironically, called Progress. However, very little “progress” occurs in the book. Rex struggles to keep the farm going in the face of mice and locust plagues, hail and dust storms. Irene tries to make a life that suits her romantic, imaginative spirit – she creates a garden, seeks friendships with interesting people, looks for work – but in the end nothing works:
Rex and Irene had given up arguing. He no longer bothered to tell her that he wasn’t asking much – harvest his crops, care for his animals, share it all with a good woman, tra-la – and Irene didn’t reply that far from not asking much, he was asking everything.
Such is the life of a mismatched couple. We’ve read of such couples before, and we will again, but for a clear-eyed, finely balanced, while also touching, portrayal, this one by Kate Jennings is hard to beat.
Sydney: Picador, 2003 (first pub. 1996)