I’ve been lucky enough to receive two (very different and both) excellent review copies this month – and here’s my review for the second. Anne Goodwin’s “Sugar and Snails” is a first novel that it’s hard to review without giving away its secrets – it’s very plot-driven, but also be reassured that it’s very cleverly done, so there’s definitely room to go back and re-read it to work out exactly how it works.
We meet Diana at the beginning of the book, a woman in her 40s who has obviously experienced some kind of trauma in her younger days which has resulted in her not being able to accompany her boyfriend on a journey to Egypt.
[Note: It’s also worth mentioning right here, because both of these things did give me pause for a moment, that the opening chapter slips quite quickly into a description of an episode of self-harm which would be triggering to those who find this a trigger – a hospital visit follows later and there are other, slightly less detailed descriptions. For those who don’t find this a trigger but are squeamish, like me, I found the details can be slid over slightly, and I can confirm that they are not gratuitous. The other matter that gave cause for concern is that a cat is introduced around now – I can happily confirm (I did check with the author first) that the cat comes to no danger or harm, and is just a foil for the main character.]
Anyway, we quickly learn that something happened on a family trip to Cairo 30 years ago which had a life-changing effect on Diana – but from then on it’s a case of picking up what happened and why as we thread our way through her memories and life events, with many (but not confusing) flashbacks to events further and nearer in time, which are sometimes revisited from a slightly different angle. We also follow her life as a university lecturer, struggling with the administration and dealing with one of her troubled students and an ethical research dilemma, which adds a very interesting and sometimes paralleled dimension, as it echoes research Diana did in her early academic days.
That’s a lot to pack in, but it doesn’t feel rushed or over-packed. The shifting events and feelings give us an excellent and absorbing meditation on identity, but as well there are lovely portrayals of friendship, both childhood and adult, which are nuanced and observant – and it’s not often that adult friendships are given as much importance as childhood ones or adult relationships, so this is a lovely aspect of the book. There is also what feels like a timely and necessary look at what happens to people who experience a situation before it gets discussed in the mainstream, and what happens to them when society catches up with what they’ve experienced.
The book is extremely cleverly done, with the reader often not realising what they are realising or when they have come to realise something – our knowledge unfurls as the central character’s knowledge of other characters and theirs of her unfurl, too. This makes it sound confusing, but it’s not – it’s extremely competent and, ultimately, moving, and it’s extremely impressive, especially for a first novel.
This book was kindly sent to me in e-book format by the author. Anne Goodwin’s website is here, you can read the Shiny New Books review here (when Anne originally approached me to review this, having a rewiew in SNB certainly worked as an indicator of quality) and you can buy it from Amazon UK here.