Sadie Jones – The Snakes

I am thoroughly enjoying Sadie Jones’ excellent book The Snakes. It reads a bit  like a thriller, but is deeper, examining the unwholesome relationships within a family and unravelling their dark and destructive secrets. Alice O’Keefe, in The Bookseller, wrote, ‘I was expecting this to be good. But, I have to tell you, I was awestruck… I may not read a better book this year.’

The Chiswick Calendar has interviewed Sadie once before and she said then how difficult it was to write her second novel Small Wars. because her first book The Outcast won the Costa prize for Best First Novel, so the pressure was immense. She tells me now that “with every book” (this is her fifth) “the pressure increases. It gets harder as you go along”.

The Snakes is about a couple who are recently married and living in London with all the usual pressures of paying the mortgage and not being able to escape from a job you’re not enjoying. At least that’s the case for Dan, who works as an estate agent but really wants to be an artist. Bea on the other hand is fulfilled by her job as a psychotherapist and feels slightly guilty that she enjoys her work when he doesn’t. Their backgrounds are very different too. He’s from a mixed race, ordinary London background and is completely used to worrying about where the next penny is coming from, all the time. She is from a family who are immensely wealthy, who she never mentions and very rarely sees. They didn’t come to their wedding and she refuses to take their money.

They go on a three month trip, driving across Europe, and on the way through France call in on Bea’s dysfunctional ex-junkie brother Alex, who is supposed to be doing up an old building as a hotel but, as they find out when they get there, is clueless as to how to achieve it. It’s when Bea and Alex’s deeply unpleasant parents turn up out of the blue that things really start to unravel.

It struck me that in The Snakes, as in Outcast, the drama stems from a traumatic event in childhood. “Childhood is traumatic by definition” says Sadie, “growing up is an agonising process” so not only is childhood trauma a good source of drama for a writer, but it is “a universal and essential truth”. Sadie’s books are not easily pigeonholed, so I ask her what she wants to achieve, what she wants her readers to take away from her books. “I want people to be moved” she says, “to feel”. She describes The Snakes as “a reality tale, specific to our era; a political book but not a cold book”. Explaining that further, she says she doesn’t want to be political in the journalistic sense but “we live in very tough times; there’s so much outrage; people need to feel their anger expressed”. The result, she says is that some people have described her book as ‘political’ while others have likened it to a Greek tragedy.

To say that her books are about the essential human condition sounds glib, but they are about human nature. Reading The Snakes I fall into the world she creates, totally immersed in her story and not thinking about structure or character development or dialogue. So well crafted is her work there’s nothing that stands out to call you back to the reality that it is an artificial construct, which is of course the effect she’s aiming for.

“Because I feel that story is so important I always try and find the place where story and writing meet. As a reader I get angry with books that are all about the style and I get bored by stories which are badly written. When reading a story it’s annoying if you can see the bones and the skeleton. I like the glass between the reader and the story to be as thin as possible”.

Does she write for herself or her readers? If she had no readers would she do it anyway? “Yes” she says. “I have an imaginary platonic reader in mind, a version of myself, but I’m sure all writers have this compulsion to write”. Her difficulty is to “turn off the inner critic” and free herself to write. She is always “scared”, only becoming more confident once she’s got in to her stride and is beginning to feel she’s saying what she wants to say, at which point she begins to be a bit happier about turning it over to her readers.

She writes in the mornings and finds four or five hours at a time are enough of a stretch. Her children have reached adulthood, so as an empty-nester, without the confines of the demands of family, she finds she has to be even more disciplined than she used to be. She’s already working on the next novel. She finds it easier to break off and deal with the demands of the real world, such as phone calls from people like me so she can publicise her latest book, if she has that cushion of fiction and of knowing the next project is safely under way.

Sadie will be talking about her work at the Chiswick Book Festival at 2.30pm on Saturday 14 September at the Tabard theatre.