|Oct/Nov 2013 Reviews & Interviews|
Allen & Unwin. 2013. 328 pp.
ISBN 978 1 7433 1686 3.
This fragment from the back of Snake Bite told me that this was not a book I had asked to review. But since it has been likened to the notorious Puberty Blues (written in the early 1970s by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey and all about surf-chicks, surfie gangs, and underage sex in the southern beach suburbs of Sydney) I decided to read it as an educational experience.
In the foreword to the reprinted edition of Puberty Blues in 2003, Germaine Greer notes that teenage boredom and experimentation have not changed since the 1970s but that the drugs and the venues are different. And they are: very different. Marihuana appears only in the final pages of Puberty Blues, and heroin is hardly mentioned, but in Snake Bite, although sex and the loss of virginity are still rites of passage for teenagers, so, too, are piercings, tattoos, "joints," ecstasy, and "poppers." In Snake Bite, too, the constant and casual use of drugs and alcohol, and the foul language, make teenage world of Puberty Blues (where fucking was "doing it" or "screwing," girls didn't eat in front of boys, and single girls who got drunk were "molls") look like a world of innocence.
Jez is the main character in Snake Bite, and she tells her own story in her own language, which is ripe and offensive but is considered normal amongst her friends. Some of the Australian slang was new to me, and some of the SMS messages defeated me, but I found this book a gripping read. Christine Thompson writes well, and she captures the ethos, the speech, and the moods of her teenage characters vividly. She manages to convey their growing maturity and their uncertainties subtly and realistically; in particular, Jez's often fraught relationship with her mother, who starts a relationship with a much younger man, and who struggles with her own reliance on alcohol while trying to give Jez the freedom to make her own choices in life.
In the end, Jez is too intelligent to be brought down by the bad friends she makes and the sordid world some of them inhabit. Snake Bite turns out to be a funny, shocking, sensitive, and hopeful book about growing-up and learning to survive in the dead reaches of suburbia. I always thought of Canberra as a fairly sterile city populated by civil servants and politicians. But clearly there is a different kind of life out there in the suburbs, and this book will tell you all (or more, perhaps, than you ever thought you wanted to know) about teen-life, language, and behavior in what the book's blurb calls "a Canberra you never dreamed existed."