The Half Life of Snails – Philippa Holloway

Published By: Parthian
Pages: 375
Released On: 07/05/2022

Two sisters, two nuclear power stations, one child caught in the middle.

When Helen, a self-taught prepper and single mother, leaves her young son Jack with her sister for a few days so she can visit Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone, they both know the situation will be tense. Helen opposes plans for a new power station on the coast of Ynys Mon that will take over the family’s farmland, and Jennifer works for the nuclear industry and welcomes the plans for the good of the economy. But blood is thicker than heavy water, and both want to reconnect somehow, with Jack perhaps the key to a new understanding of one another.

Yet while Helen is forced to face up to childhood traumas, and her worst fears regarding nuclear disasters, during a trip that sees her caught up in political violence and trapped in Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone, Jennifer too must discover that even the smallest decision can have catastrophic and long-lasting effects, both within the nuclear industry, and within the home. And Jack isn’t like other five-year olds…as they will both discover with devastating consequences.

*****

Thanks to NetGalley and Parthian for the advanced copy of this title in return for an honest review.

Ever since the 2021 HBO/Sky programme on Chernobyl, I’ve become really interested – although no more knowledgeable – in reading all about it, so the fact that it is a big undercurrent of this book appeared to me. But for me, it’s not so much about what Chernobyl actually is, but what it represents, the mood and emotion and legacy it creates.

And whilst this book is not about the current Ukraine war, it is a very timely piece that reflects the crisis they are experiencing. It explores identity and belonging and the lengths we would go to for our homes and our families.

It’s not big on plot, more focused on relationships – siblings, couples, parents, children, colleagues, even with yourself. It is an exploration of the mind and because of this, it can at times feel a little slow paced.

It is not a happy book, not uplifting, and at times rather bleak so be prepared for a book that won’t fill you with joy once you’ve finished it.

Some of the characters were more likeable than others, but they were all very insular. Helen doesn’t connect with anyone, not even the reader. We are all kept at an arm’s length. She is isolated and cold and closed off, which is an attitude she is pressing on her family.

Sometimes I like an open ending and a chance to make my own mind up regarding the characters’ directions, but k thought this one was a tad abrupt and I would have liked it to be a bit more definite. But that’s clearly just my taste and some readers may prefer a bit of ambiguity.

Having read it, I am in two minds about the title. It’s not a particularly literal title, but I can’t quite grasp what is figurative of either.

What I can definitely say though is Philippa’s writing is impeccable. She is perfect at creating and maintaining a sense of mood and time, place and voice.

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