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by S.J. Bolton
Bantam, April 2009
395 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 0593059239

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Now, Dear Reader, I hope you are in the mood for a tale that will, for a time, at least, have the hairs on the back of your neck a-prickling.

Clara Benning is a veterinary surgeon. She has chosen, as much as possible, the life of a recluse because an accident in her childhood has left her horribly disfigured (although the book implies that she is possibly not as marred as she imagines.) One morning, after her run, she receives a telephone call from a distraught mother. There is a snake in her new baby's cot, accompanying the baby at close quarters. Clara hurries to the scene and, fortunately, manages to remove the danger and release the poisonous reptile back into its natural habitat.

Clara works for The Little Order of St Francis, at a hospital that treats British wildlife, but things are happening that could best be described as unusual. After she rescues the baby, she is contacted by a doctor who wishes to ask her about a deceased patient - one who died from a dose of snake venom. More puzzling was the amount of venom discovered in the body - rather more than could be delivered by one snake, although only one was found and that had been killed by the victim.

When Clara checks her records, she learns that there have been a number of incidents in her village, far more than is usual, involving snakes. And then, as if the dramas in her village were not enough, Clara learns that her mother has died.

To add to Clara's perceived horrors, she is approached by a band member who is looking for a vocalist for her band. She has overheard Clara's singing and wants her beautiful voice for their outfit - the mere thought of which is enough to horrify the reclusive, scarred woman.

This is an exceptionally well written work. It takes two horrors - first, the almost instinctive fear of snakes and secondly, the horror a person bearing scars feels on having to expose herself to the public gaze, throws in a soupçon of the supernatural and presents an engaging tale, engaging despite the overtones of horror.

Something which, indirectly, adds to the perception of horror is the fact that Clara is an Archdeacon's daughter. To my mind, the religious angle can give implications of supernatural intervention without actually producing any ghosties, ghoulies or long legged beasties. Never mind long legged beasties - the legless reptiles are sufficiently horrific in themselves.

The characterisation is excellent. Clara, scarred as she is, is a convincing protagonist, damaged, but seeing herself more unattractive than she really is. The minor characters are also convincing and the story itself, the motivations of the malefactors, are necessary and sufficient.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, March 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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