Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 12, 2011

Snake (1996), by Kate Jennings

SnakeWell, it’s difficult to think of words other than taut and incisive to describe Snake by Kate Jennings, for the publisher has used every other synonym available in the plethora of plaudits on this reissued edition. First published 15 years ago, Snake depicts a disastrous post-war marriage in the backblocks of rural Australia.  Among the notable blurbers is Shirley Hazzard who declares it ‘irresistibly good’ and indeed it is.

It is painfully terse, particularly in Parts I and IV.  Only 153 pages long, this novella is structured in four parts, beginning with a sardonic address to the lame-duck husband of Irene.  It’s not his wife talking to him, but it’s someone who knows his failings well.  He’s a ‘nice’ guy, but dull, under-educated and inarticulate.  Incapable of registering his wife’s frustrations with life, much less do anything about them, he’s disappointed and lonely in the face of her contempt.

The second person narrative works well:

She is your wife, she despises you.  The coldness, the forbearing looks, the sarcastic asides, they are constant.  She emasculates you with the pure blade of her contempt.  The whirring of the whetstone wheel, the strident whine of steel being held to it, that is the background noise to the nightmare of your days.

She passes on the loathing she feels for you to the children, solemnly, as if it were an heirloom.  (p3)

Next, Part II and a third-person narrative.  It’s a flashback to the wedding where we meet the rest of the family.  There’s a supercilious sister, a mother determined to marry off her ‘man-crazy’ daughter before there’s socially unacceptable ‘trouble’ and a mild father of rustic respectability with ‘prejudices with prodigous taproots’. (p22)  Theirs is a family ‘so certain of their own superiority they need not remark on it; in their complacency they resembled well-stuffed sofas‘.  (p23)   Irene is deluded about marriage and thinks it’s a gateway to life: she’s in thrall to the optimism of her age, as much seduced by sexy American crooners as snakes are by snake-charmers.


Part III amplifies the heartbreak of life in the Australian bush, alluded to in Part I:

Their wordlessness arose from frugality but was also a precaution.  To describe the world was to risk admitting the inadmissable: their way of life – tilling a blighted soil under a punishing sun – was intolerable. (p9) 

Venomous like Irene’s moods, snakes lurk in the asparagus patch;  the children learn about their stealthy ways at school.  Rex, impotent in every other way, expresses his manhood by decapitating them and his son attacks them in fury in the same way.  Only Irene thinks they’re part of the balance of nature…However, nature in this hostile environment delivers biblical scourges: plagues of mice and locusts, dust storms, hail to ruin a wheat crop.  Debt triggers a local murder-suicide, and Irene admires a woman with the ‘courage’ to end her own life.

Roger Heath at English One-O-Worst wrote in his review of Tirra Lirra by the River that there is an archetypal …‘70s Australian “slim volume” novel: 141 pages long, laced with then-fashionable concerns, chiefly feminism and the cultural cringe’.  I wonder whether, despite its more recent publication date, in some ways he might assign Snake to the same category.  While Tirra Lirra by the River is more mellow in tone, Snake traverses similar territory: the dissatisfied wife in pre-feminist times; the husband who fails to understand; the search for identity including sexual identity, and the flight from a marriage that is doomed anyway.  Like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, Snake ends in tragedy and there is no resolution really.  Irene’s life – like that of Rex – is blighted just as the soil is.

Women of a certain age may perhaps recognise themselves or their mothers in Snake; but the women I know of this generation lack her self-pity.  Jennings has skewered victimhood nicely in Snake and I imagine that today’s insouciant young women will read it with a sense of wonder that things were ever thus.

Janine at The Resident Judge reviewed this book last year and found it as dry and desiccated as the family it is describing, and all the more powerful for that. From her review, I suggest you also take the link to Sue at Whispering Gums, writing about ‘take-outers’ – it’s very interesting too.

©Lisa Hill

SnakeAuthor: Kate Jennings
Title: Snake
Publisher: Black Inc, 2011
ISBN: 9781863955256
Source: Review copy courtesy of Black Inc.
International buyers: eBook at 


  1. One of the things I loved about the book when I read it last year was the language. While Jennings is a novelist and essayist she is, firstly I think, a poet and it shows. I love tight, spare, poetic books like this (says she generalising wildly).

    It reminded m of Jill Ker Conway who’s about half a generation older than Jennings. Her memoir (not novel) is particularly bitter.


    • Yes, I read your put-in/take out post about it…via The Resident Judge, and – oh bother, I forgot to do this – I meant to link to Janine’s review in mine. Will do so now!


  2. Terse, taut and incisive are such seductive words, and then the quote settled it. I’m hooked. Skipping the spoilers for now, and my TBR grows apace. (Especially if I add Wulf too!)

    I haven’t heard of Kate Jennings, before. Should I have done so?


    • I don’t think she’s written much (fiction, that is). She also wrote a highly regarded novel called Moral Hazard (2002) and I have an idea that she has something new released but I can’t remember its name.


      • Most recent book by Kate Jennings is

        Evolution of a Radical, Selected Writings 1970-2010

        Pub date: March 2010
        RRP: $32.95
        ISBN: 9781863954679
        Imprint: Black Inc.
        Format: PB
        Extent: 320pp


        • Thanks for this, Haydn – much appreciated!


  3. […] is Jennings’ first novel Snake (1996) which is reviewed on this blog.  First published by Minerva, and also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, it was reissued […]


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