When I picked up The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating I vaguely remembered reading a review at some point. I expected one of those books that purport to be about one thing, while really being about something else, on a deep metaphorical level. Surely the book couldn’t just be about snails – could it?
I was wrong – this book is purely and simply about snails. It is about one snail in particular, who lived in a pot of violets and then in a glass terrarium by Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s bed. She was suffering through a strange and serious illness, but developed an interest in snail biology, literature and history, and her research forms the core of the book. If you have ever wondered about the reproductive habits of the snail, this is the book for you.
Tova Bailey’s illness plays a peripheral role. It is perhaps too peripheral, for those hoping for a Hollywood redemption-through-snail-watching ending. I found myself hoping for Tova Bailey’s recovery, but this is a book that avoids the easy answers. In an elegant and restrained postscript, Tova Bailey gives some more background to her situation, but as I said this book really is all about the snail. That’s not to say there is no self-reflection, but it is done sparingly. A book such as this could easily become self-indulgent and it is to Tova Bailey’s great credit that she steers the opposite course. It is left to the reader to ponder, after closing the book, the questions it raises.In some ways, the book itself resembles the snail that it features. The attraction of the story is not immediately obvious, and some may dismiss it out of hand. But slowing down and spending some time to try to understand the book, at its snails pace, has unexpected rewards. It won’t be for everyone but this quiet meditation will appeal to many who appreciate thoughtful and elegant writing.