Snake Ropes by Jess Richards

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Snake Ropes by Jess Richards

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Newcomer Morgan can't understand why her parents are confining her to her house and garden, rendering her unable to explore the island on which she now lives. Elsewhere on the island, Mary has lived there all her life but still has questions: How did her mother die? Where's her little brother being held captive? Two very different girls, united by their desperation to discover what has been hidden from them by those who say they care.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-1444737844

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Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2012

It's the time for the tall mainland men to come to the island to trade, so 16 year old Mary prepares. She brings out her handmade 'broideries' and hides Barney, her little brother, in a cupboard. This is a necessary preparation born of fear, for the island boys have been vanishing, taken by the traders. On this particular day Mary's broideries go, but so does Barney.

Somewhere else on the island, Morgan is finally 18 - the age at which her parents had promised her independence. However, having moved from the mainland to the island, the promise has been forgotten and the goal posts moved. Permission for Morgan to leave the environs of her home will not come till she's 21. Morgan longs to see what exists on the other side of the garden wall... whatever it is from which she and her younger twin sisters are being kept. She would also like to know why they moved from the mainland in the first place but her mother is 'unwell' and unable (or unwilling) to reveal the truth.

This is an island where an owl with a woman's face can be summoned, an island where the women have a special role, filling others with fear and unease. Indeed, this is a mystical book where harsh a self-sufficient lifestyle meets myths, legends and magic. This is also an unusual, haunting debut novel.

I found it very easy to engage with the two main characters who share the story telling in alternating viewpoint chapters. Mary is a mixture of knowing and naivety. Yes, she's a native islander and so has grown up with an understanding of the myths and customs that give her world form and substance. However, there is so much she still needs to learn in order to find her brother and it's this desperation that comes across, driving her to dig deeper into the underground, supernatural culture. I must admit to an inward groan when I noticed she spoke in a local patois, but this ceased to be an issue very quickly as the story took hold. In fact it differentiated Mary's voice from Morgan's especially effectively.

Speaking of Morgan... she is very different. Morgan moved to the island from the mainland and so is steeped in knowledge and technology as alien to the island community as their primitive, almost third-world, ways are to her. In this way Morgan is not only an interesting character, but a clever device. With an origin in the readers' world, Morgan becomes our eyes and voice. Her description and viewpoint becomes aligned with ours. This isn't the end of the author's skill though.

Jess Richards' world in Snake Ropes is bathed in mist. I know that sounds odd, but the island is a place where reality, myths and legend seamlessly intertwine and interact to such a degree that the reader doesn't know where truth begins and myth ends. This is aided by having two teenage heroines as that's a time of life in which imagination and truth can indeed blur at the edges. The climactic crescendo is therefore made all the more riveting as, gradually, the mist starts to clear as fragments of understanding and revelation scattered throughout the story, like breadcrumbs, lead the reader on to the centre of the plot.

Actually the feel of Snake Ropes is very much like The Owl Service for adults. For instance watch out for the scene where one of the girls (I'm not spoiling this!) finds herself inside the mysterious Threshing House. Or, perhaps, parts depicting the island's version of the three witches from Macbeth. Both scenes have been eerily composed and are hugely compelling, ensuring the book becomes a constant companion till it's been read. The atmosphere is the only similarity though. The story lines and voices are definitely different. Indeed, Jess Richards' voice is as highly original as the book blurb promises and I, for one, am looking forward to hearing it again.

I would like to thank Sceptre for providing The Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to read another book on the devastation that outside forces can apply to an island community, try Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones.

Buy Snake Ropes by Jess Richards at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Snake Ropes by Jess Richards at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Snake Ropes by Jess Richards at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Snake Ropes by Jess Richards at Amazon.com.

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