Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga — 352 pgs


Book CoverJackson is an anthropologist living on the fringes of society while rehashing the exploits of his past. When his oldest friend and mentor, Warren, dies, his dying request is for Jackson to keep an eye on his niece Willa Fern, who is about to be released from a correctional facility after the attempted murder of her husband. Willa Fern's motive for shooting her husband is far from simple. As the leader of the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, Willa Fern's husband is not only a charismatic preacher but a snakehandler. While drunk, he forces her at gunpoint to put her hand into a box full of rattlesnakes. Once Willa Fern escapes, she shoots him. Now Willa Fern is getting out of prison and is headed to enact the legacy that her uncle Warren had planned for her. Headed to college to study herpetology, Willa is now calling herself Sunny and is living with Jackson in his remote cabin. As she rebuilds her life, Sunny is rediscovering herself and learning to trust again. When Jackson begins to develop more than platonic feelings for Sunny, he's surprised to find she's open to him, but within Sunny lives a willful resistance and an unconscious desire to destroy what she has built for herself. When Jackson successfully petitions Sunny's husband for divorce, the two men become unlikely allies. Jackson is interested in the church for anthropological reasons, and despite Sunny's warnings, he agrees to participate in some of the church's strange rituals. But Jackson never realizes that Sunny's husband has a plan of his own, and after a cataclysmic accident, Sunny must defend both Jackson and herself from the crazed preacher, wiping all her accomplishments and accolades down the drain with one split-second decision. Filled with intrigue and mystery, Snakewoman of Little Egypt is at once a look into two very different kinds of relationships, one dangerous and one sublime.

This was a very different kind of read for me. When I read the premise and back cover summary, I thought I knew what I had in store for me, but as I began to read, I realized that Hellenga was doing a lot more than just telling a simple story here. What I ultimately ended up with were a few stories all wrapped tightly like a rose bud, that when unfurled displayed a complex picture of differing people from differing worlds, and in most aspects, I think he succeeded. There were a few area though, where I felt the story lacked cohesion and direction.

First off, I have to say I had very mixed feelings about Sunny née Willa Fern. While I found her to be an interesting character, I didn't feel she embodied a thirty-five year old woman, for she was a little too wild and lacked a certian maturity that you would expect to see in a woman of that age. It perplexed me that she wanted to go to college. Not because I didn't understand her desire to learn, but that she seemed to want to live the co-ed life and didn't seem to care how her age set her apart from the other people she met at the school. Another thing I both liked and disliked about Sunny was her directness. At first it was refreshing and quirky for her to be saying the things that everyone was thinking but no one would say, but after awhile she became abrasive and confrontational; that was something that made me dislike her and feel a lot less attachment to her. It's funny to say, but after awhile, I came to understand that Sunny shared a lot of the traits of the snakes she was learning about in the herpetology lab. She could be cold and calculating at times, and also an opportunist with little regard for those around her.

One of the things I found weird about this book was the way Hellenga would go off on anthropological or scientific non sequiturs in the middle of his narrative. These sections did hold interest to me but they felt sort of shoehorned in at inopportune times. The story would be pressing forward and gradually gathering steam and all of a sudden there would be long passages about snakes and their multi-penises. It was very odd and somewhat disconcerting because it felt like Hellenga wasn't able to meld these separate parts of the story together very well. Imagine having a conversation that veers off into unexpected territory just when things get rolling along nicely. That's what it felt like while reading this book. The tangents that Hellenga seemed to be fond of did fit the story's mood but they made the narrative feel a little forced and less cohesive than it should have. This strangeness happened throughout the story and really detracted from the subtle moodiness and inventiveness of the plot. It felt like certian sections were lifted right from a textbook and as such there was a starched and inflexible feel to the tale because of them.

One section that really got my attention was the look at charismatic religion and worship services. I'm a very spiritual person but even I had no idea what being part of one of these churches might be like. Along with the snakehandleing, the parishioners also drank strychnine and eschewed medical help when these stunts went wrong. It was a frightening thing to read about because I know a lot of this was based on fact. It seems crazy to expect God to voice his favor or displeasure with someone by forcing their hand into a cage with rattlesnakes in it and seeing if they attack you. This kind of thought process is almost primitive to me, and as such it was interesting to see how alien it is from most of today's religions. It bordered on lunacy, really, and though Jackson found it interesting enough to want to study it in depth, the people he came in contact with were more than a little unbalanced in my opinion. The services were described as hypnotic and filled with hysteria, which is not something I've ever experienced as a Christian. I think I will probably keep it that way.

Though the book had a lot of interesting aspects, I think it was less successful than it could have been for me. All of its individual parts were good but the melding of these parts felt shoddily executed and less refined than I would have liked. Aside from the problems I had with the protagonist, the informational segments really chafed me in a way that I didn't expect. For these reasons, the book was a rather unsatisfying read for me. I think the one part that stood out was the exploration of a very unusual sect of Christianity and I would have liked to see more focus on that aspect of the plot. A very unusual read for sure, but certainly not what I had been expecting.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

13 comments:

Sandy Nawrot said...

Great review! I am strangely fascinated with these branches of religion, but I agree with you, I have no interest in getting any closer than the written word! Too bad the pace was jerky, but there are plenty of books out there that do that.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I'm with Sandy on this. But of course, if one didn't already know about the multi-penis thing, it's always interesting to read about!!!

TheBookGirl said...

This is one that I know I will have to pass on, as it involves one of my greatest phobias -- snakes. I simply can't look at pictures of them or read about them :(

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I got this one from PBS, but after I did, I was not sure I'd like it. I appreciate your in depth review; it sort of reaffirms my original thoughts.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

Its a shame this book could not have pulled it all together as this topic IS quite fascinating and terrifying at the same time. It's like being at an accident, you can't help but watch the scene unfold.

Living in the Appalachian mountains we do have these charismatic snake-handling churches - one just has to know where to go (why would you want to subject yourself to that though?)

This was a great review! Excellent way to back up your not-so-thrilled response to the book.

Nymeth said...

I actually love it when novels have real sciency/anthropological/historical/whatever information, but yeah, it has to feel natural, not hammered in.

Melissa M said...

I'm sorry the the execution on the this one wasn't quite what you expected...but it still sounds interesting!

Suko said...

Wonderful, in-depth review, Zibilee. Your reviews always show such care and attention to detail. I know so little about snakes, really, except to stay away from them when they are near. This book sounds fascinating in some ways (such as the 35-year-old going to college, and the odd facts about snakes intertwined in the story).

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

Interesting! The premise sounds fascinating, but I'm sorry to hear it wasn't totally successful for you. It's an intriguing subject matter.

Amy said...

This sounds interesting but the book doesn't sound great. Like you I find some of the more fanatic branches of religion interesting... but I'll find another book I think :)

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I've toyed with the idea of visiting different types of spiritual and worship houses, but I'm not sure if this is one I'd be tough enough to be a "tourist" in. It might be better served for me to read this book instead!

Jenny said...

It's interesting, your reaction to this book was much the same as my reaction to the book of Hellenga's I read. The subject matter seemed (and was, in bits) really interesting, but the book just didn't do it for me. I'm also fascinated by extreme Christian sects, but I don't think Hellenga is the author for me.

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