Sadie Jones's debut novel The Outcast (2008), a story of unexpected love and tragedy set in a post-war English village, was about as successful as a literary novelist could hope for. It won the Costa First Novel Award, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and was a Richard & Judy Book Club pick to boot-later adapted for the BBC. Three other novels with historical settings followed, all very well reviewed, so I was expecting this to be good. But, I have to tell you, I was awestruck. This is all-consuming from the first page to the devastating final paragraph.
It begins with Bea and Dan, recently married, renting out their tiny London flat to travel across Europe for a few months. The first port of call is Bea's dropout brother's hotel in Burgundy, which he seems to have the funds to run despite it being mysteriously devoid of guests. Bea has always been secretive about her background, but Dan slowly realises she is from a hugely wealthy family, courtesy of her self-made property-baron father.
What follows is completely gripping: a story of the coruscating effects of money, greed and corruption. It is a stunningly good novel and-I know it's only March-I may not read a better one this year.
Ever since her debut, The Outcast, Jones has peopled her propulsive plots with nuanced, dimensional creations, imbued with human failings and graces. The Snakes is no exception, although there are a few dead ends and redundant characters. As the secrets Hotel Paligny has been hiding are finally revealed, Jones crafts a pitiless shock ending; a denouement that refuses closure and resonates long after the book is set aside, because of its appalling implications. Somehow both a masterstroke and a nagging disappointment, it daringly breaks the unspoken contract between reader and writer.
The Snakes unfolds in clean, functional prose and Jones has a lot to say about the way we live now. The crumbling French hotel becomes a metaphor for Old Europe. Back home, the Bussey Building in Peckham, where Bea and Dan met, becomes a symbol of turbo-capitalist London when it is earmarked for conversion into luxury penthouses. But the couple are such static, joyless characters it’s hard to feel involved — you find yourself longing for Griff to appear with his venomous aphorisms.
The moral scheme is as simplistic as its symbolism, with pious Bea resembling a heroine from a Victorian children’s novel determined to prove that money is the root of all evil.
From the bestselling author of The Outcast comes this well-crafted, sinister novel about the corruptive power of wealth, the instability of family relationships and the bleakness of addiction.
It’s a pity that there’s so much overt preaching in this book. Bea in particular comes across as borderline sanctimonious. The plot is too obviously in thrall to its theme, the evil of wealth without responsibility. The story also has curious echoes of the Divine Comedy: but in this case the fun starts in heaven and ends in hell.
Sadie Jones is such an unobtrusively good writer that, for most of the time, this doesn’t matter. She knows how to construct a narrative of great emotional power. Her prose is crisp and precise, studded with spiky observations. Nevertheless, a novel is capable of preaching all the more effectively if it is not so obviously a morality tale.
Large themes — abuse, generational conflict, racism, class, unfulfilled ambitions — are woven into this narrative of looming catastrophe but too simplistically. “[Bea] knew, in every part of herself, how sick it was to live with such disparity, when beyond the garden wall, just there, was poverty” is a taster of the novel’s overriding earnestness.
Jones’s style is immediate and lively and she is particularly good at dialogue, which she uses a great deal, often to advance the fast-paced plot. In The Snakes, her more serious intent is to show the frightful consequences not only of bad treatment of children, but also of secrecy and concealment... I cannot reveal the story’s tragic ending without spoiling the book for potential readers or unveiling the reason for Bea’s hatred of her mother. What a pity that Jones, in this highly readable novel, resorts late on to melodrama. Does she perhaps have her eye on a film adaptation?
Sadie Jones’s fourth novel revisits the themes of isolation, shame and estrangement that we’ve come to look for in the work of this provocative and astute writer...The Snakes asks serious questions about human nature, avarice and justice, wrapped in the fast-paced rhythms of a thriller. It is written with Jones’s trademark economy and a fierce attention to the nuances of familial cruelty... I finished The Snakes with a juddering heart, strangely close to tears.