Book Review: The Little Snake by A.L. Kennedy

Folks, this book.

This book though.

I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a rut when it comes to reading fiction lately. The books that usually do it for me aren’t engendering the same excitement or intrigue as they normally would. I think this is due to a couple of things. One, my life is getting more complicated by the day, and I am having a hard time finding . . . well, time.

Two (and this is the big one), I think I was flat burnt out.

I read a lot in my everyday life (i.e., for my jerb), and I write a lot. I often don’t have energy to slog through a 900-page epic fantasy (sorry, all the epic fantasies I’ve started and abandoned in the last two years!). But recently, since I’ve been diving into more poetry, it seems like my reading muscles are stretching. Getting ready to be used again.

So a couple months ago, on the recommendation of my good friend Michelle, I bought The Little Snake by A.L. Kennedy on a whim. She said that it was one of the best books she had ever read. And then she amended the statement: This might actually be the best book I’ve ever read, she said. Well, with that kind of endorsement, I had to buy it.

Y’all, I highlighted so much of this book, if my Kindle were a hard copy, it would be all yellow.

This is a quiet, profound book about the life of a little girl who lives in a big city. It has the feel of magical realism and modern fairy tale, the third-person omniscient narrator providing a matter-of-fact tone about the girl and her interactions with a small, talking golden snake who she meets one day in her garden. Through these interactions, the reader learns that the girl is special, introspective, and kind; for this reason, the snake (who we later learn is somewhat of a reaper god whose job it is to introduce folks to their final sleep — side project: I did some quick Googling on ‘snake mythology’ and there’s a whole lot of it) falls in love with her — a deep, platonic, unrelenting love that surprises him in its sincerity. He’s never loved anything before.

And the girl’s introspection gives us these great gems of wisdom, just little innocuous parts of the narration that made me kind of gasp when I read them. For instance, about the garden in the home that Mary shares with her parents:

Mary liked the city and her garden. She could walk across the garden in six steps and walk from its top to its bottom in eight steps. On some afternoons she would take very tiny paces and this would allow the garden to seem twice the size and much more beautiful. The grown-ups she explained this to became confused.

They would tell her, ‘The garden is the same size, no matter how many paces you squeeze into it.’

She would tell them, ‘Not at all. The longer I take the cross the garden, the larger and more extremely wonderful it becomes, in the same way that ice cream becomes much more magnificent when you eat it very slowly with a little spoon.’ As I said, the girl was very clever.

‘Then your ice cream will melt,’ said the grown-ups.

And Mary would shake her head and start to skip and hum a tune to herself, because grown-ups expect children to do such things and it pleases them much more than questions they can’t answer. She did not mention that if she stood perfectly still in her garden then it went on for ever, because she could never reach its end. That would have made the grown-ups frown.

And then a little further down the page:

She believed it was hers because she loved it. She believed that loving something should make it a part of you, in the way that your feet are a part of you. (And you would, of course, be very foolish not to love your feet — should you have any — because they can be quite useful.)

Seriously, I had to stop and shake a little bit at the first line of that.

Not only the content of the book itself was great. There is an amazing mastery of language in this, as well. For instance, when the snake (Lanmo) becomes angry about Mary being bullied on the playground at school:

…[O]n her shoulder, Lanmo was bristling his scales with fury. This sounded like someone dragging a sword along stones in the far, far distance.

That has such an oomph to it that I wish I could have underlined it ten times.

The story follows Mary and Lanmo and how their relationship changes as she ages. It’s a commentary on society, on growing up, on illusions and faith and love. It is a beautiful, profound, quiet book that I am insanely grateful to have read. I spent a good bit of time sobbing at 10 pm after finishing it.

Please, for the love of god just read this book.

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