Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Published on: September 2010
Page Count: 352
Genre: Literary Fiction
My Reading Format: MP3 audiobook sent by the audiobook publisher for review
Audiobook Published by: Tantor Audio
Narrator: Coleen Marlo
Audiobook Length: 10 hours 30 minutes
Available Formats: Hardcover, eBook, audiobook
Sunny grew up attending a charismatic snake-handling church in area of Southern Illinois called Little Egypt. At the age of 16 she marries Earle, a preacher of the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following. Their marriage is a rocky one. After forcing Sunny at gunpoint to place her handle in the snake box, she turns the gun on him and shoots him in the leg. She was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. While there, she gets an education and is an excellent student. Her uncle, who works for Thomas Ford University, helps her get accepted as a Freshman there before he dies. He rents a room from Jackson, a faculty anthropologist at TF. Jackson has been suffering from lime disease, but agrees to allow Sunny to live in Warren’s old room until she gets settled in at the university. Sunny learned that she doesn’t need a man while in prison and wants to sever all ties with Little Egypt – her husband, her home and her God. What’s left is proving it to herself.
Snakewoman of Little Egypt won the 2011 Audie Award for Literary Fiction, so when I had the opportunity to receive a review copy, I was thrilled. It won the Audie over The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, an audiobook I absolutely adored. I had to know why. The book began with an introduction to the character of Jackson, his anthropological history, his current battle with lime disease and his lover Claire. Just as with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it wasn’t until Sunny entered the story that I became fully engaged. It was when her voice came out over my car speakers that I could see why this audiobook won the Audie. I’ve never listened to an audiobook narrated by Coleen Marlo before and she is fabulous.
I was really enjoying the first half of the audiobook. I loved her exploring her emotional, physical and intellectual freedom from her husband – and then ex-husband – Earle. I didn’t care for the chapters from Jackson’s perspective as much, but Sunny was such an intriguing character and so alive. Occasionally, beginning with their first Christmas together, there were some awkward scenarios. There was a scene between Sunny and her biology professor on the night of the Millennium Party Jackson threw that really sent me out of the story. I just could not imagine that a college professor, even an extremely socially backward one, would say the derogatory things he said to Sunny. Had that been an isolated incident I might have forgotten it entirely. Unfortunately it was more of a harbinger.
From the point of the Millennium Party, the story became bizarre. There were awkward fights between Sunny and Jackson. Jackson becomes enmeshed in the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following and enters into a strange relationship with Earle. While this did allow Hellenga to highlight Earle, who is the most interesting male character in the novel, I can not for the life of me understand or explain why Jackson would have chosen to do what he did. He does have a reputation for getting emotionally and sexually involved with the groups of people he’s supposed to be studying for anthropological purposes, but that isn’t enough. That community in Little Egypt nearly destroyed the woman he claims he wants to marry. Why would he want to keep their lives connected to that abusive man or that church? Jackson’s experiences there felt like they were from an entirely different novel. The draw those rituals had on him was nearly psychedelic in a novel that was very much rooted in science.
There were many exchanges in the novel where Sunny played the ignorant woman to allow a male character to demonstrate his knowledge about one subject matter or another. When Jackson surprises Sunny with timpani lessons it proved to allow Jackson to demonstrate his knowledge of the word timpani and the male instructor’s vast knowledge of the instrument. There were also long and painfully detailed passages about gratuitous topics, such as gutting a deer, that should have been cut from the novel. If they served a purpose within the narrative, I have yet to make the connection.
Perhaps the most irritating characteristic of Hellenga’s writing was it’s repetitive nature. By the end of the novel I was weary of Sunny’s interest in Jackson’s sexual relationship with a very short pygmy woman and of her favorite sayings about writing. There are also times when either Jackson or Sunny experience something within a chapter they narrate and then, in a subsequent chapter narrated by the other character, the same thoughts or events are described. One instance, where Jackson describes the feel of a snake as a “superhuman erection,” where the exact phrases were repeated and are part of an awkward encounter between characters.
Snakewoman of Little Egypt is a horrible book to happen to a wonderful, vibrant character. Sunny was a rich character with so much potential. It’s a shame that she wound up imprisoned in a book that descended into what I can only call awkward intellectual pornography. While I can easily see why Coleen Marlo is an award winning narrator, the story did not do her talent any more justice than it did Sunny’s character.
I’m posting this review today to participate in Jen at Devourer of Books‘ weekly Sound Bytes meme. Jen and I will both be reviewing Snakewoman of Little Egypt today. If you didn’t catch our Twitter chatter about it this week, be sure to check out her review to see if we agreed about the book.
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