Where the Serpent Lives is the first novel by the poet Ruth Padel. I didn’t know much about Padel prior to reading the book, but the author biography mentioned that she’d been acclaimed for her nature writing – and, straight away, it was easy to see why. I found the first scene, which describes an encounter with a king cobra in the jungles of India, to be wonderfully intense, making poetry out of the precise language of science. Sadly, the novel never quite reached that level of intensity again.
Padel’s chief protagonist is Rosamund Fairfax, the daughter of Tobias Kellar, an eminent herpetologist, who might have followed her father into the biological sciences, but instead abandoned her university studies and embarked on a relationship with music mogul Tyler. Now, in 2005, Rosamund is forty-two years of age and living in London, unhappily married to a philandering Tyler, saddened and frustrated at the uncommunicative teenager her son Russel has become, and wanting nothing to do with her father (who’s still based in India, where Rosamund grew up). Where the Serpent Lives chronicles a year of drastic change in Rosamund’s life.
The key problem I have with Padel’s novel is not being able to engage with the central relationships. Partly, this is an issue of characterisation – Russel’s character seems to me not to rise above that of a stock ‘sullen teenager’; and, whilst there’s plenty of evidence that Tyler is a bad husband, one sees much less of the caring side that makes Rosamund stay with him – making her dilemma that bit harder to empathise with.
It’s also partly an issue of prose. There are moments where I find Padel’s writing sharply observant (such as when one of Tyler’s lovers reflects on her past in war-torn Kosovo and contrasts it with Tyler’s flippancy, concluding that he ‘did not live in a world where people died’ ); but much of it doesn’t command the same attention. Padel’s prose is at its most effective in the passages dealing with the book’s most extreme events – but the heart of Where the Serpent Lives concerns the everyday, where the prose is weaker; and, since the novel’s strengths lie on its fringes, the result is, naturally, uneven.
Where the Serpent Lives is a frustrating read that genuinely has its moments, some of them very good; but it’s hard not to wish for more than just moments.
This review first appeared on BookRabbit.com