By Sadie Jones
Like theatrical villains who arrive a couple of scenes into the play, Liv and Griff Adamson slither into view in “The Snakes” preceded by their reputations.
At first, it’s hard to see what all the preamble-d fuss is about. They seem bad, sure, but only ordinarily so — tone-deaf and mean — when we encounter them on a trip to France to visit their son and daughter. They gripe about the ghastliness of the journey and the inadequacies of their offspring. Griff fails to take into account the mixed-income company at lunch when he complains about the annoyances of private jet ownership. Liv is weird and out of it and skeevily attached to her son.
On the other hand, the couple appear eager to shower their vast fortune on their children as well as on Dan, their son-in-law. Maybe their boorishness is an inevitable side effect of great wealth, we can almost hear him thinking — something like the way walking around with butter-stained clothes is a side effect of eating lobster.
This is the fifth novel by the nimble, versatile British author Sadie Jones, who is equally at home in a class-bound Edwardian country house filled with visitors (“The Uninvited Guests”) as she is in a repressed London suburb harboring secrets after World War II (“The Outcast”). Set in present-day London and Burgundy, “The Snakes” is a creepy, scary novel about the corrosive effects of money and power and parenthood.
If you can judge people by the way their behavior affects their children, the Adamsons have failed in every category. Alex, their younger son, is a recovering drug addict who has been unable to renovate or even clean up the crumbling hotel his father bought for him (out of guilt; out of a compulsion to control; out of a worse reason that we will learn later) in France. He lives there in squalor and isolation, making up in wine what he has forgone in drugs.
His sister, Bea, lives in an Ikea-furnished flat in London, refusing to accept even a penny from her father. (A third sibling lives offstage in Hong Kong, oddly unscathed.) That she and Dan, a mixed-race artist toiling at a soul-sucking real estate firm, have a few thousand pounds in the bank is a source of great pride to her but anxiety and bitterness to him. What will happen to his principled love for Bea when her family fortune is dangled before him? We will soon find out.
Jones writes with cool, crisp prose about cruelty of many kinds; about class and race and power; and about regular people caught up in complicated situations that veer far out of control. She has an Ian McEwan-esque ability to provoke tension and anxiety.
Like the fog in “Bleak House,” dread permeates the first half of “The Snakes,” right from the opening paragraph, when Bea has a bad dream on the eve of her longed-for trip to Europe with Dan. (“She thought how strange it was to have a nightmare when they had such plans, and she was so happy,” Jones writes. She has no idea.)
Dread follows the couple across the Channel and stalks them at Alex’s deteriorating horror-fest of a hotel. There is a serious dearth of guests. Dan and Bea seem to be the only visitors, unless you count the rats decomposing in the attic and the snakes coiling and skittering around the property. (“They’re sort of company,” Alex says, creepily. “They’ve got nice round eyes.”)
As bad as it might be that the hotel rooms are named after the seven deadly sins — Dan and Bea are awarded Hubris — there is far worse to come. What’s going on with the hotel guest book? Why do the neighbors seem like escapees from “Deliverance”? Is Alex really getting anything out of his online Narcotics Anonymous meetings?
When Griff and Liv drop in to complete the tableau of family dysfunction, the book becomes less like “The Shining” and more like Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels, with their lacerating descriptions of how cruelty courses like poison through the veins of a family. In this closed, stifling environment, we’re also reminded of the Danish movie “The Celebration,” in which the children of a distinguished financier announce to the guests at his 60th-birthday banquet exactly what it is that he did to them.
“Someone should have helped him,” Jones writes, as Bea berates herself about Alex’s childhood. “She tried to. But fear was bigger. She didn’t know what chance there was that he could save himself.”
On its own, this seems an ambitious enough plan for a novel. But along the way Jones shifts gears, and then shifts them again, and then turbocharges the engine, so it can feel almost as if you are reading two (or three) different books. The effect is like walking into what you think is an upscale seafood restaurant and being served not just sole meunière but also eggplant parmigiana, chicken pad thai, beef souvlakia and a Quarter Pounder with cheese. Everything is beautifully prepared, but you are overwhelmed by the sensory overload and the branding confusion.
The tension diffuses and reconstitutes, and we’re not sure how to reorient our thinking. Is “The Snakes” a portrait of a messed-up family? A cautionary tale about the evil that money does? A murder mystery involving a malign and racist foreign police force? A “Simple Plan”-style thriller about greed and wads of cash?
I would walk a long distance to procure one of Jones’s daring, interesting, beautifully written, atmospheric books. Readers will find this novel provocative and propulsive even when they suspect the author of over-egging the pudding. But it is at its best when it homes in close rather than venturing far afield.
Bea and Alex originally seem a study in contrasting approaches to childhood trauma — do you remain inside a compromised system, or do you try to escape by rejecting it and cauterizing the wounds? But Bea’s parental-avoidance program turns out to be just as precarious as the prison of obligation Alex has built for himself. One by one, the cards in her paper house fall.
Snakes are everywhere here: slithering unseen in the walls of the house; looming with unblinking eyes and lipless mouths in the garden; leaving their old skins behind as false promises that change is possible. But nothing could be as malign or coldblooded as the human reptiles in this family.