The Half-Life of Snails by Philippa Holloway
This is a terse and tense novel about survival and survivalism set in Anglesey and Ukraine.
Helen, an activist against the development of a new nuclear power plant, decides to visit Chernobyl, not only to experience the strange blasting of the place, but also to arm herself with more arguments against the construction of a new reactor on the North Wales coast.
So she dons some leathers and sets off across Europe on her trusty Triumph motorbike, leaving her sister Jennifer and her husband Ioan in charge of her young son Jack.
Jack’s upbringing, as you can imagine, was less orthodox than that of the other kids at his school.
He was trained to stand, to know how to survive if events took a dangerous turn.
But his behavior at school, a mix of studied disinterest and solid defiance, set off alarm bells among staff, who began to suggest he needed help.
Of course, her mother’s help is denied, as Helen first plays the tourist in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, then finds herself trapped in the place after her bike hits a boar.
She is taken in by an old woman who simply lives in a house with no neighbors as Helen’s body heals after the accident and she waits for a new friend, Anton, to get her out of the place.
Consequences and foreboding
Meanwhile, Jack fails to move into his aunt’s house, which may, in part, play into Jennifer’s first-ever panic attack, enough to disconnect her from her workplace. which, ironically enough, is in the nuclear industry. fiercely opposed.
It’s not that being sick and being home for Jennifer is relaxing at all, because it’s lambing season and her husband is up at all hours, especially stressed out without the Helen’s help in these areas.
Plus, there’s Jack’s earthiness to deal with, not to mention the welfare of the snails he takes with him in a jar.
The romance really picks up speed after Helen recovers enough to try to get out of the “zone” and cross the border into Belarus.
She and Anton set off on foot, which is a risky undertaking, especially without the means to navigate after his cell phone gives up the ghost.
There is a particularly perilous river crossing and of course the possibility that the drinking water they use is heavy water, tainted by the past.
Together, they cross a ghostly countryside of empty houses, cross a landscape of after and apprehension.
Meanwhile, the country itself had become more restless and dangerous, with riots in the streets of Ukraine as the Euromaidan revolution fomented.
It was the so-called “dignity revolution” against President Yanukovych that ultimately led to the overthrow of the Ukrainian government and was one of the events that triggered Putin’s war.
A novel, “two sisters, two nuclear power plants” is the slogan on the cover of the book. While Chernobyl is a name that came up with the news, Wylfa is a place Helen and Jennifer grew up with, always feeling its strong presence, going to birthday parties in the visitor’s center, knowing the “night glow of the spotlight sitting between the curve of the promontory and the flat line of the sea.’
Wylfa is imprinted on their minds with the clarity of a photo Jennifer finds on Helen’s phone, as she snoops around, trying to find out why her sister is late returning from her trip:
“The mustard yellow of the turbine hall spills over the dark ferns and grasses of the hillside, foreshadows the blaze of gorse flowers about to burst on the hillside.
The dark chimneys and the base of the reactor block seep into the black rock of the coastline, and the pale gray-greens of the reactors swell towards the sea, the sky, and seem to fall apart like tiny pale anemones, growing between the rocks .”
As in this excerpt, the novel’s prose is often stripped down, uncluttered but nonetheless effective as it charts the relationship between the two sisters and demonstrates the unbreakable bond between Helen and her son.
There is superbly authentic writing about the day-to-day business of farming, made particularly relevant when we read that many farms in this corner of Anglesey were taken over and even more so when we discover a farmer taking his own life, an event that weighs heavily on Helen’s mind.
Indeed, the pressure exerted on just about every character in The half-life of snails built and built everywhere, with apparently very few safety valves in place.
When Jack disappears near the end of the book, Helen knows absolutely nothing about it, as she continues to run through obstacles at embassies, until she finally arrives home to a frenzy of searching and fervent concern at the about the missing five-year-old child.
But even if the final image of the book is simply heartbreaking, the final feeling is not: it belongs to a woman who knows very well where she belongs and will do whatever it takes to stay there, to prevent what belongs to him is never taken away.
You can read an interview with Philippa Holloway here
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