‘Sugar and Snails’ by Anne Goodwin (July 2015: Inspired Quill)
Reviewing a book which cradles a storyline secret in the first half means it’s hard to avoid spoilers, but I’ll do my best. I started ‘Sugar and Snails’ by Anne Goodwin already aware of the plot since I was a member of the online writing group where Anne once work-shopped the opening chapters of her debut novel. Now that I’ve read the completed book, I can say with all sincerity that having access to the early developmental stages of ‘Sugar and Snails’ was a privilege. In today’s cut and thrust publishing world, getting a book from initial idea, to fledgling drafts, and into the eager hands of a publisher is a feat to be lauded. Published by Indy press Inspired Quill, ‘Sugar and Snails’ deserves its space on the shelves of major booksellers not just because it is well-written with an engrossing plot, but also because it seriously addresses the plight of individuals who do not conform to societal norms.
There are frequent references to football/soccer in ‘Sugar and Snails’ and besides its setting in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (a city where everyone has an opinion on the local team, aka the Magpies) they seem entirely appropriate in a book of two halves. It’s a brave decision on the part of the author to initially present her protagonist, Di, as a procrastinating, emotional wreck, whose lover Simon walks out the door in the novel’s first scene. The portrayal of Di is consistent. She is a woman with a great many inner demons viz a vis relationships, sex, professional ambition, self-worth, and even her right to occupy a space in both private and public life. I nodded in agreement when Di’s best friend, Venus, confronts her about the half-life she leads, saying there are times she could shake her: ‘It’s like you think taking care of yourself is a mortal sin.’
Di is a lecturer in psychology so the ‘physician cure yourself’ adage comes to mind and there is a good deal of self-analysis in the book. Whilst I found this aspect intriguing, my sympathy and connection to Di came more through the flashbacks to her childhood and adolescence – vivid, affecting incidents with a lot of humour take us back to the Sixties and Seventies and reveal that Di was always a misfit. At one point, she describes herself as being ‘frozen in childhood’ and the disconnect she felt with her working-class parents in their conservative mining town in the North East of England is touchingly evoked. Everyone in the family is struggling to understand each other: ‘we didn’t talk about feelings back then’. But the Seventies is the decade of change. The younger generation can, or must move on, leaving for London or beyond and through education or other means, making life choices that were not open to their parents. Questions about gender conditioning are fundamental in ‘Sugar and Snails’ and Di’s recall of events in London when she visits her older sister, Patricia, a trainee nurse, lead to previously undreamed of possibilities. Patricia is important and inspirational for Di too as she symbolises the prospect of escape from the conventional binds of their humble origins: ‘Her kohl-rimmed eyes, and her attitude, which I’d found so attractive in London, didn’t work this far north.’
As a forty-five year old, Di is still as uncomfortable in her skin as she was at fifteen, having suffered three decades worth of various forms of abuse, without knowing who she really was or is. The harrowing, graphic scene in which Di slashes her wrist leads to her revelation that this, and earlier apparent suicide attempts do not mean she wants to die. Rather, she dreams of reincarnation, coming back as ‘someone I could live with’. When she hits rock bottom and declares things can get no worse, Di verbalises her turning point: ‘I can’t say I like this person, but at least she’s not a stranger.’
All good stories must start somewhere and the onus is on the author to decide why it starts where it does. In ‘Sugar and Snails’, Di’s story begins, or perhaps is forced into the telling, when Simon invites her to join him in Cairo for a visit. He knows Di has been before and wants to share the exotic setting with her, but his invitation triggers her emotional and psychological crisis and the reader is left pondering why. As I mentioned, I was aware of the plot and the secret Di harbours and so, was able to appreciate the brilliant foreshadowing in the first half of ‘Sugar and Snails’. However, I wondered about the holding back of the secret for so long for two reasons; one artistic, the other prosaic. Firstly, readers need to sympathise with the main character fairly early on in a novel in order to stay on her team throughout. Although Di is a wonderfully rounded character for whom empathy grows as her painful story unravels, some readers may not have the patience to wait, may even feel frustrated sharing Di’s discomfort without sharing the root cause. Secondly, I did question how ‘Sugar and Snails’ can be marketed to a key, target readership without the spoiler or by not classifying it in a way that appeals to these potential readers. Having said that, it was impossible for me to read ‘Sugar and Snails’ without pre-knowing the plot, and I can appreciate that Di’s personal reawakening, followed by the reader’s eventual realisation of why she has suffered thirty years of ‘dry-eyed stoicism’, is a creative decision. Likewise, many readers may enjoy the element of mystery and the guesswork relating to Di’s apparent phobia about Cairo.
The book’s denouement is handled in a lyrical, highly satisfying way with Di vowing to make up for lost time: ‘The door of my cage is finally open and I’m ready to fly.’ Her personal transformation as she finds the means to return to Cairo and save her relationship with Simon has been an intense and fraught journey which makes for a compelling read. But ‘Sugar and Snails’ is much more than one woman’s story. Di’s career as a junior, non-wave-making academic was built on her PhD research into elements affecting choices in adolescence. Following release from her self-fabricated cage, she turns her focus to parental intolerance of ambivalence without proper debate. Di’s theme mirrors the book’s central concerns, its subtle interrogation of binaries, the blacks and whites of human existence, the false certainties which so many people champion because they are too frightened or too lazy to confront ambivalence, difference, and not knowing. Perhaps the author was absolutely right to construct Di’s story around two halves, two mirrors facing each other, one in which the reader cannot see everything, is unsure, left guessing, and the other in which he/she suddenly sees Di clearly and perhaps, a little or a lot of himself/herself too.
* ‘Sugar and Snails’ has two UK launches – one was in Nottingham on 24 July and the second is in Jesmond Library, Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 31 July at 6.30pm (I’ll be at that one). For further information including a fascinating account of Anne Goodwin’s road to publication, please visit her blog.