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Author Archives: Holly Atterbury
“I found a snail in the woods. I brought it back and it’s right here beneath the violets …”
“Is it alive?”
This is the first question Bailey asks of the snail in her book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, in which she recounts her survival through a debilitating relapse of her chronic illness. Once a traveler and gardener, she is rendered bedbound and alone, save for the occasional visits of loved ones and her caregiver. And then she is gifted the company of a wild woodland snail, brought from its habitat with a friend’s potted offering of wild violets.
As it so happens, the snail is alive, and its motion and unique liveliness breathes purpose into Bailey’s stalled life.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a small book. Its pages number at 170; 191 if you count the acknowledgements and bibliography. It’s a quick read that gets technical at times but never becomes wholly inaccessible. Its style, complete with pages dotted here and there with monochrome drawings of snails, is a tribute to the 19th century naturalists of whom Bailey seems fond, and she follows in their footsteps – or, rather, to borrow her imagery, she glides along the slime trail they left behind.
Bailey draws from scientific literature and poetry in rhythm with her observations, making the book one-part informative essay and one-part ode. Peppered in between discussions of the snail’s locomotion, diet, and evolution are the chronicles of her illness, told in an almost tangential fashion, secondary but parallel to the snail’s life, where she both wishes to be more like the snail and longs to feel human again. Is it alive, she asks of the snail and its stillness during their first introduction. Am I alive, she seems to ask; or, the darker question that lingers, one with an answer she couldn’t know, will I survive this?
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is best enjoyed in the perfect stillness that might allow oneself to overhear a snail at its dinner. Bailey asks the reader to slow down and ponder – and wonder – at nature and its small, unnoticed creatures and their tiny, significant lives. The reward for your patience is a quiet sort of jubilation and a feeling of hopeful resilience.
Bailey invites us to consider the snail and, in doing so, asks if we might also see ourselves.
Bailey, Elisabeth Tova. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010.
I recently ordered a copy of Good Omens, which arrived in my mailbox dingy, awkwardly sized, and with an atrocious “SOON TO BE A TV SERIES” sticker that turned out to not be a sticker at all, but rather a circle printed onto the cover itself like a mosquito trapped in amber — the point being, the book arrived not at all like I had hoped, but rather in a manner that oddly suited it. Like an old, eccentric friend skidding to a stop right at your front-door: slightly out of breath, bedraggled, and altogether entirely welcome.
Good Omens brings together an entire cast of Dramatis Personae to enjoy, but three of the central characters are Crowley (“an Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”), Aziraphale (“an Angel, and part-time rare book dealer”), and Adam (“an Antichrist”), all of whom are supposed to bring about the End of the World according to The Plan, but all of whom don’t really want to. Neither Crowley nor Aziraphale, having forged a strange friendship dawning back to the Fall of Man, fancy an eternity of The After run exclusively by either demons or angels. Plus, they’ve developed a sort of attachment to humanity and all of its wonderful imagination. And as for Adam, well… what eleven-year-old wants to do what he’s told?
This is a whirlwind delight of a book; though at times its snappy, quick-witted prose can create as much confusion as it does charm. It’s a book that you would be tempted to read quickly (and can), but you may find yourself (like me) having to go back and carefully reread certain passages. It took me a few attempts to comprehend the baby-swapping that occurs in the beginning. It doesn’t help that a collaboration between two prolific British authors tends to be quite…British, and although the authors’ inclusion of footnotes helps, eventually an untraveled American may need to give up on recognizing where anything is taking place.
It’s a rollicking, reverently irreverent mashup of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and The Holy Bible; a humorous high-energy (oc)cult classic that might end up making a profound point about Life and all that.
Gaiman, Neil, and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens. Harper Collins USA, 2006.