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A L Kennedy: The Little Snake

This is an unusual sidetrack for A L Kennedy. It is a children’s fable, written for adults, along the lines of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s Le petit prince (The Little Prince), which Kennedy says influenced her in the writing of this book.

Our heroine is Mary, a young girl, when we first meet her. The city she lives in seems to be somewhat divided. There was the very rich part of the city, where people had swimming pools and larders as big as living-rooms and living-rooms as big as meadows. Then there was the poor part of the city, often cold, too dry or too wet and with listless electricity. Because they had access to the sky, they flew beautiful kites from their roofs. Mary and her parents live between the two. They have a garden on the roof, they were not too squashed and the pipes did not leak too often. The city itself did not have parks and was quite expensive.

One day, in their garden, Mary suddenly noticed a golden bangle around her stockings. She started talking to the bangle, which turned out to be the eponymous little snake. The snake was somewhat surprised that Mary was not afraid of him, but she wasn’t. Moreover, the snake did not look like any snake she had even seen in books. That is because it wasn’t. It eventually tells her that its name is Lanmo.

We soon learn that the snake seems to have two functions. Its prime function is as the Angel of Death. It appears to people who are clearly not nice people and then kills them. We see this almost immediately when it appears in the very large basement (which it had taken two hundred imported Bolivian miners a year to excavate) of the very rich Mr. Meininger He thought smiling was a foolish waste of effort. He was also the third or, possibly, the fourth richest man in the world. I cannot take everything you have. The snake paused. . . . I will only take everything you are, says the snake and proceeds to kill him. Mr. Meinginer is not the last person we see the snake killing.

Most people cannot see the snake. Normally, only two kinds of people can see him: those who are about to die and special, good people, like Mary. Again, Mary is not the last person in the second category to see him.

The snake befriends Mary. Indeed, they seem to be best friends, at least till Mary is older and has a boyfriend, Paul. It helps her at school, where she has trouble with the posh, rich girls and the teacher. It will continue to help Mary.

During the course of the book, the snake will come and go. Sometimes it visits Mary quite frequently. Sometimes there are long gaps between the visits. Each time it does come, the snake finds conditions for Mary and her family have deteriorated. For adults, this is a very political book, with Kennedy damning the rich and powerful. We have, for example, a political leader, known as the Great Man Who Loves the People, who likes war. I like to think he is based on Tony Blair or perhaps George W Bush or perhaps a combination of the two. No matter which one he is based on, he pays the price.

The snake has big problems with anger management and it is Mary who is able to help him, though he is aware of his problem. However, he is aware of love. Lanmo recognises different types of love: Some of them love places and some of them love things and some of them love themselves and some of them love other people but it is the love of other people that matters and it is that that Mary has, which makes her special in Lanmo’s eyes.

Lanmo does not fully understand humans. When he tries to eat Mary’s kittens and Mary objects, he accepts this without fully understanding it. He cannot understand why, when there is such a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, it would not be fully justified for the poor to steal from the rich. Mary disabuses him.

Things get so bad and that Mary, Paul and her family have to leave the city and finds pastures new which, with Lanmo’s help, they do. As this is a children’s fable, there is, more or less, a happy ending.

While I would not want to make a habit of reading children’s fable for adults, I enjoyed Le petit prince (The Little Prince) and I enjoyed reading this, though I shall look forward to Kennedy returning to her usual style of writing. It makes its political point, it tells an enjoyable tale for children and never descends into the mawkish or trite.

Publishing history

First published 2018 by Canongate