Awakening, by Sharon Bolton, is a mildly romantic thriller set in an English village inundated by serpents. Typically, I avoid thrillers–I do not like to be scared for recreation–but I chose to read this novel for its setting and its portrayal of snakes.
This work of fiction taught me a lot about snakes! I jump every time I see a snake in the garden,* but I enjoy learning about them.
I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the information in this novel, but the author clearly made an effort to present facts about snakes in an accurate way. As she writes in the Author’s Note:
The portrayal of snakes in Awakening, their habits and the effects of their venom, is as accurate as I have been able to make it and I have to thank Richard Gibson, the curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates at Chester Zoo, for correcting the silliest of my mistakes. Those that remain are my responsibility, not his. It wasn’t always easy, balancing Richard’s insistence on fairness and accuracy with my need to write a scary book, but I hope, in the end, he thinks I’ve done justice to these fascinating and beautiful creatures.
The protagonist, Clara Benning, is an introverted veterinarian with a soft spot for reptiles, including snakes, which are often misunderstood. When her village becomes home to an unusually high number of harmless grass snakes and harmful adders (Britain’s only native venomous snake), she has to dissuade her neighbors from indiscriminately rounding up and killing everything that slithers.
The snakes are not the villain. The villain is a person who is using them as a deadly weapon. Who is it? And why? The answers to these questions were not obvious–at least to me–and I enjoyed the way the author slowly revealed the killer.
Part of what’s interesting about this novel is that its premise–the increasing contact between humans and venomous snakes–may become more common in real life. The reason is climate change, which is one of the early theories in the story to explain the increase in the local snake population.
For example, Clara’s brother-in-law says:
Global warming… Got a lot to answer for. What have we had? The hottest April since records began, with May looking set to follow. And now the population’s exploded. Things [snakes] are swarming around all over the place.
Indeed, research on the effect of climate change on snakes suggests that climate change is altering population sizes and distribution. As a result of changing weather patterns, rising average temperatures, habitat loss, and other factors, the likelihood of contact between humans and snakes is increasing in many parts of the world.**
So, for those keeping track of the detrimental effects of climate change, be sure to add “increasing contact with venomous snakes” to the list. If only ophidiophobia, a fairly common fear, were enough to convince human beings to finally take climate change seriously.
*I live in Pennsylvania, which apparently has three venomous species of snake. I am not good at identifying snakes, but the snakes I encounter while gardening are probably harmless garter snakes. I hope!
**See, e.g., D. Zacarias & R. Loyola, Climate Change Impacts on the Distribution of Venomous Snakes and Snakebite Risk in Mozambique, Climatic Change (Jan. 2019) (“[Global climate change] might induce the approximation of snake climatic suitable areas to highly populated areas”); C. Yañez-Arenas, et al., Mapping Current and Future Potential Snakebite Risk in the New World, Climatic Change (Feb. 2016) (“Detailed projections of potential future range shifts on distributions of the medically most relevant species indicated that North American species’ ranges are likely to increase in the future.”); J. Nori, et al, Venomous Snakes and Climate Change: Ophidism as a Dynamic Problem, Climatic Change (Jan. 2014) (“Future projections show moderate ‘north to south’ displacements of the snakes’ suitable climate spaces, implying potential increments of suitable spaces in human populated areas in Argentina.”).