Review: The Half-Life of Snails by Philippa Holloway
This is a terse and tense novel about survival and survivalism set in Anglesey and Ukraine.
Helen, a campaigner against the development of a new nuclear power station, decides to visit Chernobyl, not only to experience the eerie blastedness of the place but also to further arm herself with arguments against building a new reactor on the north Wales coast.
So she dons leathers and heads off across Europe on her trusty Triumph motorbike, leaving her sister Jennifer and her husband Ioan in charge of her young son Jack.
Jack’s upbringing, as you can imagine had been less orthodox than the other kids in his school.
He’s been trained how to stand on his own two feet, to know how to survive should events take a hazardous turn.
But his behaviour in school, a mix of studied disinterest and solid defiance set alarm bells ringing among the staff, who begin to suggests he needs help.
Of course his mother’s help is denied him, as Helen first plays tourist in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone and then gets trapped in the place after her bike hits a wild boar.
She is taken in by an old woman who ekes out a simple living in a house without neighbours as Helen’s body heals after the crash and she waits for a new friend, Anton to get her out of the place.
Aftermath and foreboding
Jack, meanwhile is failing to settle in his aunt’s home, which may, in part play into her Jennifer’s first ever panic attack, enough to have her signed off from her place of work,which ironically enough, is in the nuclear industry her sister so bitterly opposes.
Not that being signed off sick and being at home for Jennifer is at all restful, as this is lambing season and her husband is up at all hours, especially stressed without Helen’s help in such matters.
Plus there’s Jack’s truculence to deal with, not to mention the well-being of the snails he carries with him in a jar.
The novel really picks up pace after Helen recovers sufficiently to try to make it out of the ‘Zone’ and across the border into Belarus.
She and Anton start off on foot, which is a risky business, especially without the means to navigate after his mobile phone gives up the ghost.
There’s a particularly perilous river crossing and of course the possibility that any drinking water they use is heavy water, tainted by the past.
Together, they traverse a ghostly countryside of empty houses, cross a landscape of aftermath and foreboding.
Meanwhile the country itself had become more fractious and dangerous, with riots on the Ukrainian streets as the Euromaidan revolution foments.
This was the so-called ‘Revolution of Dignity’ against President Yanukovych which eventually led to the overthrow of the Ukrainian government and was one of the events that set Putin’s war in train.
One novel, ‘two sisters, two nuclear power stations’ is the tagline on the book’s cover. While Chernobyl is a name that arrived with the news, Wylfa is a place both Helen and Jennifer have grown up with, always sensing its solid presence, going to birthday parties in the visitors’ centre, knowing the ‘evening glow of floodlights sitting between the curve of the headland and the flat line of the sea.’
Wylfa is imprinted in their minds with the clarity of a photograph Jennifer finds on Helen’s phone, when she is ferreting around, trying to find out why her sister’s late coming back from her trip:
“The mustard yellow of the turbine hall overflows into the dark bracken and grasses on the hill, foreshadows the blaze of gorse flowers about to erupt across the hillside.
The dark chimneys and the base of the reactor block seep out into the black rock of the coastline, and the pale grey-greens of the reactors billow towards the sea, the sky, and seem to fall in fragments as tiny pale anemones, growing between the rocks.”
As in this extract, the prose in the novel is often lean, pared-back but nonetheless effective as it maps out the relationship between the two sisters and demonstrates the unbreakable bond between Helen and her son.
There’s some superbly authentic writing about the day-to-day business of farming, made especially relevant when we read that many of the farms in this corner of Anglesey are being bought up and even more so when we find out about a farmer who takes his own life, an event that weighs heavily on Helen’s mind.
Indeed the pressure on pretty much all the characters in The Half-Life of Snails builds and builds throughout, with seemingly very few safety valves in place.
When Jack goes missing towards the end of the book Helen knows absolutely nothing about it, as she’s still navigating hurdles at embassies, until she finally arrives home to a frenzy of search parties and fervid concern about the disappeared five year old.
But even though the final image of the book is simply heart-rending, the final sentiment is not: it belongs to a woman who very much knows where she belongs and will do whatever it takes to stay there, to keep what’s hers from ever being taken away.
You can read an interview with Philippa Holloway here
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