The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

By Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Once in a while a read comes along which transcends all expectations and Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating was just such a book for me.

I was ‘stuck’ in Presque Isle, Maine, USA in the snow. Flight cancelled due to storm – holed up in a very David Lynch hotel. So I read it in one go (which is always a treat in itself) whilst the wind blew and temperatures plunged below minus twenty. I won’t ruin the plot and content with a rambling review but suffice to say that it’s a tale of a remarkable journey through a sadly pretty unique period of time in the author’s life. During an illness relapse a friend leaves a potted plant at her bedside and a stowaway slimes out to change her life.

The intimacy and clarity of her observations reveal the essential curiosity of all true naturalists and she uncovers some wonderful gems of her guest’s lifestyle as she lies in bed. As the book unfurls we are treated to a gentle exploration of gastropod behaviour and ecology, and it’s always so refreshing to see one of the world’s underdogs being championed and celebrated. But the real joy unfurls through the unavoidable parallels between human and mollusc, the metaphor is profound and her words poignant. For me it is fabulous, a triumph and it will remain a favourite forever.

I have tried to fault it, murdering to dissect is a scientist’s sort of crime, and I thought I had found some points of frustration . . . but then they were wholly addressed in the Epilogue. I wanted (unnecessarily) to know which type of snail had been so wonderfully enjoyed and more precisely the nature of her illness.

There are many great strengths I think, I like the look and feel of the book, its rough cut pages and the delightful drawings, I like the simplicity of the prose which never lacks in precision and I suppose above all I liked the indisputable honesty of the whole thing. Some will make more of metaphors they’ll find, others will revel in her passionate and determined mind, I always find purity in simplicity and honesty. But then ultimately it appealed because it’s about a little thing, it’s so much about a little thing, a little unsung hero trailing silver round a pot and over a mossy tank.

Blake wrote

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Tova Bailey has done this, and through this beautiful writing we are all richer for it.

It’s also available from Amazon and from the UK publishers Green Books www.greenbooks.co.uk

I read a lot, not a lot of wildlife stuff, well, not as much as people think I would. I read a lot of history books and when I get a good tip I love some top notch fiction. My favourite authors would be F. Scott Fitzgerald, elegant and optimal use of words to paint beautiful tragedies, Paul Bowles, deep and dangerous stories which feel sticky and dirty and Cormac McCarthy whose early works are harsh but very, very well written.

Of course there are many other gems on my shelves; The Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland is a delight, A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols was ‘unput-downable’ and more recently I have raved about Tiger by John Vailllant and American Buffalo by Steven Rinella too. Oooh, and Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell.