To date, Sadie Jones' novels have transported her readers to skillfully re-created and cleverly orchestrated pasts, whether 1950s Cyprus in "Small Wars" or 1970s London in "Fallout." Her latest novel — her fifth — marks something of a departure as it is set squarely in the present. But this temporal shift aside, "The Snakes" sees Jones on reassuringly familiar ground, concocting incisive family drama and deploying her signature tropes of deft characterization, black humor and stomach-tightening tension.
At the heart of the novel are a recently married couple, Bea and Dan. She is a psychotherapist who is happy with her lot; he yearns to make it as an artist but for the moment is stuck in a rut in an unrewarding real estate job.
Tired of being "in deficit to his life, paying out and getting nothing back," he persuades his wife to join him in leaving London and traveling around Europe for three months.
Their first port of call is the empty and dilapidated hotel that Bea's older and emotionally scarred brother Alex runs in France. But at this "made-up doll's house" the vacationing pair are unable to fully relax: Alex, though no longer drug-addled, is still deeply troubled; the attic is infested with snakes; and, worst of all, Alex and Bea's parents have announced that they are also coming to stay.
Dan is confused by the siblings' mounting dread, and can't grasp why Bea has chosen to cut herself off from them. Then they arrive and shatter the fragile peace. Liv is cold, vain, neurotic and overmedicated; Griff is a cruel and arrogant bully. But the biggest revelation for Dan is how obscenely rich they are. Bea has never wanted her parents' money, but Dan, struggling to make ends meet, begins to be enamored of it.
Eventually, disaster strikes, tearing the family apart. Griff resorts to his usual emergency tactic of "using his money to swab the blood." But that money goes only so far when the police reveal that their inquiry into a tragic accident has become an investigation into a calculated murder.
Once again, Jones simultaneously manages to draw us in while keeping us on the edge of our seats. Her narrative is threaded with mean streaks. Scenes crackle with dark energy. Characters hint at danger. As with her acclaimed debut "The Outcast," we witness the devastating effects of parental abuse; like her third novel "The Uninvited Guests," an unwelcome party unleashes chaos. The snakes in the attic pose a latent threat ("They can get through tiny, tiny holes, anywhere"), but the more venomous Griff exudes and personifies clear-and-present menace.
Jones' portrayal of a dysfunctional family is as powerful as her depiction of provincial France in all its "tasteful narrowness" and her merciless examination of greed, class and corruption. The book's desperate last act may constitute a jolting change of gear and direction, but that matters little because the events that unfold are so electrifying.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Sadie Jones
Publisher: Harper, 438 pages, $26.99.