marginalia || Where the Serpent Lives, by Ruth Padel

Another book that really could’ve been great. I am very much beginning to feel like an ogre, what with the books I’ve read and reviewed this March.

Yet another debut novel: Where the Serpent Lives by Ruth Padel could’ve been, if not great, then good enough, a respectable first venture into fiction. But it’s an ambitious novel that fails. There’s no doubt where Padel’s talents lie; Padel–who happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin–turns her narrative eye to nature, assigns her lyricism to the plights of the jungles of India and the odd badger in England. So much vividness in her exploration of ecological issues, the characterization of animals here and there.

However, I couldn’t help but feel that these were the superior characters in the novel–Padel’s humans leave a lot to be desired. Credibility is one of them. Actual personalities, another.

There’s a sacredness to the depiction of nature. Some rare and secret thing we’re let in on when we slip into the mind of a snake or a fox. But it all gets humdrum and stereotypical with people. There’s Rosamund, around whom the novel centers on, the annoyingly long-suffering wife. There’s Tyler, “charismatic” when you ask the blurb, “Type A douche” if you ask me. I will elaborate on this later on, but man, this guy is a dick. What else? There’s the uncommunicative teenager, the estranged father, the guy who was once in love with Rosamund, the random friend–and let’s not forget the tender-hearted Croatian mistress.

I am not exaggerating. This book points at a depressing lack of imagination when it comes to the human characters–considering they’re what the novel is about, the animals only scurrying in and out of the picture. The human beings have no complexity in them. They don’t have to be likeable, they just have to be real. And the author has to do that for us readers. Padel, sadly, doesn’t.

Take Rosamund. The blurb asks, “Why is Rosamund so paralyzed by Tyler and his secrets?” Yes, Dear Novel, why? Why do you stay, Rosamund, when the man so audaciously parades his womanizing ways for all and sundry to see? Why do you stay with Tyler who says things like “How cool, how sexy” on the subject of rape? Why do you stay when he is so obviously a jerk you have no connection to? Why do you insist you love him? Why do you stay, dammit?

I am all for dissatisfaction. I am all for paralysis. Give me domestic disturbances and those subtle and not-so-subtle tensions. I am all for that. I am all for deluding one’s self into loving jerks, and staying with charismatic douchebags. But, for God’s sake, there is no possible reason for Rosamund to be the way she is–no possible reason except for The Author Said So. I’m not even asking for psychoanalysis or motivation. I’m just asking for believable characters who do not make me roll my eyes, characters who do not make skip to the end.

Yes, another book I’d skipped to the end. Because, frankly, it was getting ridiculous. First the characters angered me–I can be judgmental, har. And then they annoyed me. And then they just had me gaping in shock and pity. And then I didn’t care.

[Augh. And the sex scenes are particularly horrid. Caviar and nipples–hell, anything to do with crass and smarmy Tyler is EW.]

The book’s end is crammed with the credibility I was looking for. Or attempt of. It was really too little, too late. The novel spent 200 pages detailing what an insufferable group of people these are, and a couple of pages to the end we’re told Oh, not really? I am not buying it.

With humans: Ill-timed revelations, shaky plotting, lackluster characters. With our animal extras: Evocative language, lush descriptions, and vivid characterizations. (See what I’m getting at here?)

Now. If anyone wants my copy of the book, raise yer hand, and I’ll toss it your way (maybe loyal fans of Padel’s poetry and nature writing?). Because it will not be loved where it lies in my bookshelves.

5 thoughts on “marginalia || Where the Serpent Lives, by Ruth Padel

  1. I hate it when books try to cram in whatever was missing at the end. It feels like the author was writing along and then thought to herself, hmm, I bet someone is going to mention that I haven’t said anything about XXXX for two hundred pages. I better add that in here… in every paragraph.

    Thanks for your honest review.

    1. Thanks, Ash. It was just so frustrating how the novel tried to “make it up to the reader.” If the cardboard characters hadn’t been my foremost annoyance, this would be it.

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