Tuesday, March 15, 2011

“Ways and Waves and Weaving”: A Review of Patricia Damery’s Snakes, a novel

Fisher King Press, March 2011, ISBN: 978-1-926715-13-1, fisherkingpress.com

Snakes, a novel is the second book by Jungian analyst Patricia Damery. Her first, Farming Soul: A Tale of Initiation (2010), shares as its prima materia her Midwest background and the demise of the family farm, an action of modern life that scars the soul as well as the land.

Two things strike me as notable about Snakes: First, it is written as an open letter to the narrator’s recently deceased father, but in such a subtle way that we as readers do not feel like eavesdroppers but invited listeners. Second, the book employs numerous metaphors (the farm, the sea, weaving, and, of course, snakes), which often marks the work of the amateur who cannot make decisions, leading to an incoherent book with no thru-line.

Nothing here could be further from the truth.

Perhaps it is the skill required by the high craft of weaving that allows Damery to write multi-metaphorically, or the sheer simplicity of her storytelling. The straightforward language and structure can support the artistry of numerous images, which interlock and reinforce each other in a way I’ve not often seen.

Another strength of Snakes is the fallibility and flaws of almost every character, from the narrator’s two young sons, to her husband, to her teachers, her mother, and most clearly, to her. Bad advice, close-minded opinions, misunderstandings, and selfishness seed the book’s numerous fields, and I found myself agreeing with one character in one moment and siding with another in the next. The people who populate the book are not heroic or even necessarily “literary,” but neither are they mundane or boring. They simply are, and like the access the simplicity of the language allows, I could identify with them all. This is harder to do well than a non-writer might at first imagine.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Snakes was the ending, because I completely disagreed with the narrator’s ultimate choice and yet it made perfect, if less than ideal, sense. It could have gone other ways—the many metaphors would have supported several—and yet, for her, it was the only one, and worthy of our respect.

So what is Snakes about? It is about the Risks we take, both major and minor, that coalesce over time to define our lives. It is about the Fear of the little things and Fear of the big things, and at the end of the day, the month, the season, and our lives, finding out that it was a shorter distance to Love than we thought. It’s about Mistakes and Regrets, and how necessary they both are to a life well and fully lived. It’s about the Earth and the Sea; the Individual and the Familial; Respect and Trust; Youth and Age. But most of all, Snakes is about finding one’s place in the Universe and how that journey is formed.

In a time when the ultimate usefulness and fate of the novel seem to be endlessly in question, a book like Snakes, with its great simplicity and subtle complexities, demonstrates what all of us who champion this literary form—writers, editors, publishers, readers, reviewers—feel in those deepest places of Knowing:

Although the journey must be taken alone, the stories of those who have gone before or who might be on parallel paths are an invaluable source of Peace and Inner Strength.