S-S-S Snake, Kate Jennings’ Snake, that is

I thoroughly enjoyed Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay on Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino (1992) in Reading like an Australian writer. Consequently, I plan, over time, to read and share other essays in this book – at least those discussing books I’ve reviewed here. As it happens, there is an essay by Debra Adelaide on Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review), and it’s the perfect next cab off the rank. Not only have I already posted this year on Erik Jensen’s longer essay on the book in the Writers on writers series, but Snake is a novella, so I’m using this post as a contribution to Cathy’s (746books) Novellas in November. I hope that’s not too cheeky.

I’ll start, though, by introducing Debra Adelaide. A novelist with a few books under her belt, including The women’s pages which I’ve reviewed, she first became known to me through her work on early Australian women writers, her Bibliography of Australian women’s literature, 1795-1990 (1991) and A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century (1988). Like many writers, she also teaches creative writing, and Snake is one of the texts she regularly sets.

So Snake – for those who don’t know – draws from Jennings’ life, and tells the story of a lively, imaginative woman, Irene, who marries a decent but boring man, Rex. It cannot work, and the consequences are dire.

Jensen’s and Adelaide’s essays are very different. This is partly because Jensen’s, being in the Writers on writers series, focuses on the writer, whilst Adelaide’s in Reading like an Australian writer focuses on the reading and writing. Not surprisingly, the approach Adelaide takes is closer to mine – except that her writerly perspective is more astute, centred and expository.

The elastic novella

Early in her essay, Adelaide specifically address its form as a novella, saying that Snake demonstrates “how wonderfully elastic the novella can be”. In Snake‘s case, it is “so elastic that it can almost be prose poetry”. It is also “audaciously” abbreviated. She’s right – this is one spare novel.

Adelaide identifies three main reasons that she sets this text for her students – “its poetic brevity, its ‘experimental’ form, and its intriguing, sometimes maddening, allusions to and quotes from numerous literary and cultural references”.

It is, she says, the perfect set text, because it can be easily read in one night and remembered, but,

Brevity does not mean simplicity: its complex themes ripple out and take their time before finally landing on the muddy shores of our imagination.

This is what makes Snake such a good and memorable read.

The three s’s

Adelaide divides her essay into three main sections, those three s’s in the title: Structure; Serpents; and Scenes, sex and Serena McGarry.

I love discussions of structure, because structure can so often help inform the meaning. When a short novel like Snake has a complex structure, it is worth taking note. Adelaide talks about her own method of writing and wonders about Jennings’ approach. She doesn’t know how Jennings works, but she does say that this novel

opened up my eyes to the possibilities of writing a novel that was straightforward yet clever in structure, that was stripped back to its narrative bones, and yet at the same time managed to be multilayered, dense, poetic and unforgettable.

She discusses the novel’s four-part structure, and explains how, although the book is primarily about the mother Irene, it manages to convey the POVs of all four characters, thus “deftly” delivering a portrait of the whole family. Simultaneoulsy, with its use of second person at the beginning and end, “it offers a powerful sense of everyperson”. I love this analysis. I also enjoyed her further discussion of second person, which accords with some of my assumptions about this voice. One of the points she makes is how second person makes (can make) the reader complicit, which is one of the reasons Madeleine Dickie used it in Red can origami (my post).

Adelaide also briefly discusses an issue that fascinates her, as it does me – “the unlikable character in fiction”. Irene is “remote, ruthless and selfish”, and yet, despite Snake‘s “staccato delivery and disparate parts”, Jennings manages to maintain the focus on Irene “without alienating us from her”.

However, the section I most enjoyed is Adelaide’s discussion of Serpents. She references DH Lawrence’s poem “Snake”, which Jennings quotes from in the novella, and Henry Lawson’s short story “The drover’s wife”. She also references Jensen’s discussion of snakes, because, of course, he discussed them too. The point is that snakes are both metaphorical (the cause of the original fall of humankind, and so on) and actual (a real threat to vulnerable children, dogs and women.)

And so, the heart of Jennings’ Snake lies in, says Adelaide, “the universal fear of the serpent, that potent post-lapsarian symbol of all evil and danger”. All associations with snakes race through our minds, she says, as we read this novel. This is one of the ways a spare novel can lay down meaning on top of meaning.

In the third section, Adelaide discusses Jennings’ “scrupulous clarity”, using a few examples from the novel. One is the murder-suicide of Serena McGarry and her husband. Adelaide explores how much, in less than 100 words, Jennings conveys about Serena, and its implications for Irene. Adelaide makes the point that these “marvellously condensed” scenes “contain entire longer stories within them”. She sometimes uses them as springboards for students to develop their own stories. I would add that this sort of writing can make a book a great reading group book because it encourages readers to think about characters – who they are, why they are who they are, and why the writer has written them this way. Endless discussion can ensue!

Adelaide concludes by saying that Snake is “a novel that replays re-readings well out of proportion to its size”. I second that.

Debra Adelaide
“Structure, serpents and Serena McGarry: Kate Jennings’ Snake
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 219-232
ISBN: 9781742236704

Debra Adelaide, The women’s pages (Review)

Debra Adelaide, The women's pagesWhen I started reading Debra Adelaide’s latest novel The women’s pages I thought, “Oh yes, here’s another interesting story about women’s lives, how their options are limited, etc etc. I’ll enjoy this but I wonder why it was longlisted for the Stella?” And then, a few chapters in, I started to realise that behind this “interesting story about women’s lives” was a fine and witty intelligence that was playing games with me, that was exploring ideas about creativity and writing, that was looking at how life imitates art (or is it vice versa), as well as at the lives of women! Needless to say, by the end I was fully engaged, enjoying every word while I eagerly turned this woman’s pages.

The embarrassing thing is that I haven’t read Adelaide before – well, that is, I haven’t read her fiction before. I have read some of her non-fiction. Her Australian women writers: A bibliographic guide was groundbreaking and is still highly valuable, and the book of critical essays which she edited, A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century, is a significant work. She also edited and introduced Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the dark which I’ve reviewed here.

But her fiction? I’ve been remiss, but no more, because The women’s pages sure has me intrigued. It starts off straightforwardly enough with protagonist Ellis being asked to a 10th wedding anniversary barbecue. Adelaide sets the scene perfectly. It’s the 1960s and Ellis is a young domestically-competent mother who’s not happy in her marriage. She can’t imagine still being married to her (albeit perfectly decent) husband for another 8 years. So far so good – I’m interested. Then, chapter 2 introduces us to “not yet forty” Dove from current times. She is grieving for her mother and, we discover, is writing the story about Ellis. From here, the chapters alternate Ellis and Dove’s story until around halfway through the book where they start to intrude a little on each other, where in the same chapter we find Dove musing on where Ellis’s story is going or on how Ellis is exerting “maddening autonomy” on her story! What is going on, we start to wonder?

So, as well as being a story – and an authentic story at that – about women’s lives, The women’s pages is also a metafiction about the art and process of writing fiction. Here, for example, is Dove with a sort of writer’s block:

But Dove had run out of ideas. When the baby was born, she had a fair idea, but exactly where, and how, resisted her imagination. Doubtless because she had no experience in this respect, she could not bring herself to visualise a pregnancy and the birth of a baby. She knew this was nonsense, if she were to call herself a writer of fiction, and that she needed to do something about this, even if it simply meant googling the subject.

Write what you know, or else research! I enjoy these sorts of mind-games played by authors; I don’t mind being reminded of the author’s hand.

However, while the metafiction thread is an important part of the novel, there are other threads or themes. Motherhood is a major one. Childbirth and childrearing feature, but the overriding idea is that of missing mothers, the silences about them, the gaps they leave. Ellis’s mother had left her when she was a baby, and Dove was adopted (by a loving mother, but …).  A related thread is the new word to Ellis’s world, “feminism”. There are illegal abortions and adoptions, alongside women striving to develop careers. Ellis gets a job in the magazine industry. By the mid-1970s change is afoot. She senses “the whole country shifting around … with these tall god-like creatures [the Whitlams] in charge”, but she’s not fooled into believing “there was really such a thing as equality”. When she’s offered a promotion, her male boss tells her he expects “absolute commitment”, that is, there must be no “running off to get married, or taking time out to look after children”. Adelaide knows the decades of which she speaks, and her evocation of them is spot on.

Then there’s Adelaide’s exploration of imagination and invention, particularly in the metafiction thread. And this is where another important aspect of this novel comes into view – Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Brontë’s novel is introduced at the beginning of chapter 2, with Dove blaming it for her decision to write her novel about Ellis (whose name references Emily’s pseudonym Ellis Bell). The “gaps and shadowy images and half truths” in Wuthering Heights “had infected her [Dove’s] imagination” and out of it Ellis’ story emerged. For most of The women’s pages, Brontë’s novel acts as a sort of simmering undercurrent, surfacing every now and then, not always overtly, to impose an added layer on the narrative. But at the end, as Ellis’s complicated family background is finally revealed, it comes to the fore. We even have a Catherine, an Edgar and a Nell, but the parallels aren’t laboured.

Dove writes, around halfway through the novel, that

she had not meant to write the story of women, but that was how it had appeared, that was the only story in her head. The more she delved into the lives of her characters the more it was about missing or silent women and the more it seemed it was her job to find them and open their mouths and lay them across the pages. Ellis had stepped out of a longer story, one in which women were always grasping for some sense of authenticity, and in which mothers in particular were absent. Wuthering Heights had almost no mothers and certainly none whom you could say were good to any degree. They were all dead or dying, or simply blank spaces, unnamed and unacknowledged, as if their progeny – Heathcliff, Catherine, Hindley, Edgar, Nelly – had been produced by magic, or had just sprung up out of the earth …

I said in my opening paragraph that Adelaide’s writing is “witty”. I didn’t mean by this “funny”, though it is wryly amusing at times. No, I meant “knowing”, “astute”, “clever”. Adelaide’s development of Ellis and Dove’s story is beautifully controlled. The women’s pages could, in fact, be read as an expert’s guide on how to write a novel. More interesting to me, though, is the light it throws on the intense emotional investment novelists can make in their work, on the sometimes complex nexus between character and author:

What, Dove wondered, had she done? Or had she done it? Maybe it had happened exactly like this and she was merely recording the facts.

See what I mean? I imagine Adelaide had fun writing about Dove writing about Ellis.

This is a delicious read that engages both the mind and the heart, and has an ending that brings you up with a start. Yes, I can see why it was longlisted for the Stella.

awwchallenge2016Debra Adelaide
The women’s pages
Sydney: Picador, 2015
ISBN: 9781743535981

(Review copy courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)