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British Mysteries

Awakening, S.J. Bolton, Minotaur Books, $25.95.

Awakening by S.J. Bolton

Your tolerance for this book may depend on your tolerance level for snakes, which play a fairly large part in the story. The main character, Clara Benning, is a vet who works with injured wild animals (she's hand feeding some barn owl chicks in her kitchen), and she's also a bit of a recluse, thanks to a facial disfigurement. I loved Clara, and for someone who has a low tolerance level for snakes (like myself) she made the whole book completely worthwhile. Part ghost story, part English village mystery, and part a coming of age story (the "Awakening" of the title refers partly to Clara), I was gripped from start to finish. The book opens with a corker: Clara gets a panicked call from a new mother up the street—she's found a snake in her infant's crib.

There's hardly a more horrible scenario, and yet, Clara, with her gentleness and love of snakes (she's actually an expert on lizards), manages to get the snake (which turns out to be an adder) out of the baby's crib with no harm to either party. Bolton makes the horrible not only real, but she also manages to diffuse it. The rest of the book builds in complexity upon this one incident, though all of the mysterious incidents seem to involve snakes.

The next shoe to drop is almost more horrible—Clara is called in to help when an entire house is found to be infested with snakes. Most of the snakes are harmless grass snakes (but still—yuck—Clara goes through the house loading her pillowcase with reptiles), but in one room she discovers an adder, and in another, an even more poisonous snake, one that's not native to Britain. In this incident, the author deftly introduces Clara to one of the other main characters, Mark (who helps her divest the house of snakes), introduces even more firmly Clara's animal expertise, and makes clear the fact that Clara is fairly unused to human contact. She simply doesn't like people looking at her.

The backstory is Clara's childhood, which the author comes to by way of having Clara's mother die at the very beginning of the book. While I would categorize this novel as psychological, I also think the author is more comfortable with narrative than psychology. A more skillful psychological writer, like Elizabeth George, P.D. James or Minette Walters, would milk Clara's backstory for all its worth. For Bolton, it's only a part of the mix. She is an incredibly gifted narrative storyteller, however, and the setting, a tiny English village which seems to have more than it's share of creepy old people (and snakes), is completely memorable. The wildly original story is the work of a master, and you probably won't be able to put the book down as you get towards the end, creepy as it may be.

Clara has an irritating tendency to go into dark houses and onto the edges of cliffs alone, but the reason she's trying so hard to find who's behind the various village deaths is that the police suspect her. As a reader, we never suspect Clara for a minute, so it's as if Nancy Drew, accused of a capital crime and oddly scarred, was on the case. I can't remember a book that's lingered in my memory after finishing it for so long in quite awhile; the evocative prose of S.J. Bolton will probably stay with you too, as will the character of Clara Benning.

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