March 18, 2012

Book Review: Snake Woman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga

When I give up on a book,I immediately banish it to the dark confines of my bookcase. There, it will languish on a dusty shelf along with other orphaned books, never to be touched again. Such was the fate of Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga, a book that turned me off so thoroughly I didn't get past chapter one on the first try.

Jackson Jones is a professor of anthropology who is recovering from the disastrous effects of Lyme disease. A bachelor experiencing the first hint of midlife crisis, he lives in a big house with a detached garage apartment formerly occupied by a deceased friend, Warren. In his deathbed, Warren asks Jackson to take care of his niece, Willa Fern, who is scheduled to be released from prison. Six years before, Willa shot her abusive husband on the shoulder after he forced her hand into a rattlesnake pit. What would have been a good beginning turned into a frustrating read as Hellenga loaded the narrative with endless back story some of which were irrelevant to plot or character development. Disgusted with the authorial self-indulgency, I banished the book to the shelf.

But a day later, I had an attack of guilt. After all, it is the type of book I like to review: low key, non-commercial, something that is often overlooked in the shelves. Plus, I paid twenty-five dollars for the darned thing. I decided to give it a second chance. I'm glad I did because chapter two introduces the novel's true main character, Willa Fern (the Snakewoman), who has just been released from prison.

The difference in the storytelling is stark, like a diamond to a bauble. As opposed to Jackson's tiresome narrative, Willa has a distinctively engaging voice: upbeat, sympathetic, and full of wonder. It is as if she is seeing things in a new light. She is living in a new town, enjoying a new dig (Jackson's garage), and calling herself a new name (Sunny). She has also decided to attend the university where Jackson teaches anthropology. Though thirty-five years old, her voice seems innocent and childish. She sees herself as a woman of seventeen, that carefree period before she married her abusive husband, who eventually robbed her of her childhood.

Jackson's midlife crisis, Sunny's hunger for companionship, and their proximity to each other push them toward the inevitable love affair. It is something the reader expects and wants to see. Sunny's hunger for life is genuine, and to some extent, Jackson's, too. Though Jackson's chapters are sometimes tedious, Sunny's witty narrative gives the novel the brilliance it needed. We want to follow her journey and see her succeed in the life she has built for herself. In the end, I give this novel a grudging nod.

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