"I was hesitant to write a ‘way we live now’ novel," says Sadie Jones. But she undoubtedly has. The Snakes, her first contemporary novel, is about the coruscating effects of money, greed and corruption on one wealthy London family, and it is an all-consuming read from the first page to the devastating final paragraph.
The Snakes begins with Bea and Dan, recently married, renting out their tiny, heavily mortgaged London flat to travel across Europe for a few months. Dan, a frustrated artist, hates working as an estate agent and Bea is a poorly paid psychotherapist, so the trip will be a chance to step back from the daily grind. Scraping together the money for a car, they set off. At Bea’s insistence, the first port of call is the hotel that her dropout brother Alex runs in Burgundy.
On arrival, Bea and Dan find the hotel mysteriously empty of guests, and even of staff. The one thing they do find in the hotel, up in the attic, is a nest of snakes. But Alex, a recovering addict who has never settled on a particular career, is on his own—with big, as yet unrealised, plans for the hotel.
Bea has always been very secretive about her background but Dan, who married her just 18 months after their first meeting, comes to realise she and Alex are from a hugely wealthy family—not just rich, but super-rich. When her property developer father Griff and his wife Liv make a surprise visit to the hotel, Dan can’t understand why Bea is so appalled to see her parents, and why she has kept him away from them and her past life so secret.
The reader comes to understand why. Griff and Liv Adamson are among the most monstrous fictional parents I have encountered in a while, perhaps since Edward St Aubyn’s David and Eleanor Melrose. Griff, who made his money in property in London, starting in the 1970s as a slum landlord, is a man "hollowed out by greed" says Jones.
Bea sums him up to Dan: "He’s just greedy. He’s ravenous. Nothing is ever enough for him."
One of the most terrifying parts of the novel is when Dan, a mixed-race man from south London, becomes enthralled by Griff, and the family’s extreme wealth. He begins to think he could handle it, and that Bea is stupid to ignore her family and pretend the money doesn’t exist. But Bea has seen first-hand, revealed in flashbacks, what it can do, and what it has done. When tragedy strikes in France, the full extent of the horror at the heart of this family is revealed. Even Bea, who has striven so hard to escape, and live a good life, cannot.
Jones, who is serene and composed when we meet, although occasionally endearingly sweary, explains that she knew she wanted to write about "a good woman surrounded essentially by evil". The line that stayed in her head while writing the novel also works as a subtitle: "the impossibility of purity". The Snakes may have a contemporary setting, but its roots are deep: Greek tragedy, the Christian perception of good and evil, and Dante’s "Divine Comedy" (Bea and Dan/Beatrice and Dante). "I thought about Electra and the Duchess of Malfi, heroines in a very male world where their strength goes for nothing," says Jones. "Being in a corrupted place, there is really nothing that [Bea] can do."
The Snakes is written in the close third-person and the reader is privy to the thoughts of both Bea and Dan, and their opposing views on her family’s wealth: "[The reader has] to be torn between right and wrong," says Jones. "You have to be on both their sides, I couldn’t have one of them being ‘other’. They are both sides of one person, in a way."
It may be mostly set in France, but The Snakes is also a novel about London right now, a city which has already fallen to the property developers bent on gentrification, no matter what the cost to ordinary people. "I feel passionately about all of that, and about what’s happened to my city, but that just had to be one of the elements. Writing a London book in which you’re not in London most of the time was a way to do that. I didn’t want to be hanging around the world of property going, ‘Isn’t this shitty?’ for the whole book," she says, laughing.
But of course The Snakes isn’t only about property prices and the ill-gotten gains of the super-rich. It is a propulsive novel about how greed and corruption place Bea and Dan in terrible danger. It is a thrilling read and in many ways it resembles a thriller; there is a police investigation following the tragedy. But, unlike a conventional thriller, not every loose end is tied up, warns Jones. "Going through life—whether it’s a murder, or why someone has stopped loving us, or why our child has moved to Australia and doesn’t want to speak to us, whatever—we cannot know the hearts of other people." Later via email she says: "I wanted to write an anti-thriller, a book about there being no answers, about the way a bad world is fertile ground for random evil and the absolute corruption that wealth brings. To do that, I borrowed the fuel of a thriller."
Writing for real
Jones began her career writing screenplays, until her début novel The Outcast (2008), a story of unexpected love and tragedy set in a post-war English village, was published to huge acclaim. It won the Costa First Novel Award, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and was selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club before later being adapted for the BBC. All her books are very filmic, as befits a former screenwriter.
"I know I’m writing badly if I’m making it up on the page," she says. "It’s going well if it’s a thing I am reporting. So I’ll imagine [the scene] and let it play; try to hear it and see it, and then I’ll be describing that. If I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that’s quite a nice sentence’, then I know it won’t do." Three more novels with historical settings followed Outcast, all exceptionally well reviewed: Small Wars (2009), set in 1950s Cyprus, where the British are defending the colony against Cypriots fighting for union with Greece; The Uninvited Guests (2012), a ghost story/morality tale which takes place in an Edwardian country house; and Fallout (2014), set in the acting world of 1970s London.
Jones started writing The Snakes in the summer of 2015, with the Brexit debate in full flow, followed by the referendum vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump. Whatever side you are on, she reckons it is undeniable that we live in a time of extreme greed and corruption. "I wanted to write a book simply about being a good person—about good itself—in what has become, in many ways, a snake-pit world."
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