Longlisted for the Green Carnation prize, which is open to GLBT authors worldwide, Snake Ropes is Jess Richards' debut novel. A matriarchal society of about 150 people subsists on a remote island and holds its secrets close. The only outside contact is through mysterious traders who come once per month. Richards has created a quirky world where ghosts converse with the living and a Thrashing House is used to mete out punishment. Selkies search for their skins. Ropes bite with the venom of snakes.
The narration alternates between two 18-year-olds, Mary and Morgan. One steals keys and the other is locked up, so of course they will help each other. I was immediately drawn in by Mary's voice in the opening lines:
"The tall men in boats are coming. I see them through the window, close to the beach. My little brother is sat on my lap. Him puts hims hands on the table, leans round and looks up at me. Hims brown eyes have my reflection inside.
I smile at him, stroke the curls on the back of hims head where them need a wash. I say, 'Sorry Barney. I've got to get you hid, them're coming.'"
Boys have been disappearing from the island.
On the other side of the island, the eldest of three daughters chafes at being locked up for her own safety:
“I know from all the storybooks that wicked stepmothers are to be avoided if you wish to remain good or pure or ignorant. I really want one.”
Morgan has books for company, but they no longer sustain her.
“I’ve been dancing in ashes for a hundred years with a frog that has turned from me, kissed a prince and become a toad. I’m meant to have been a much loved daughter made from snow but my parents used icing sugar so I can’t melt and leave them thinking I was always perfect.” (I was delighted to see this reference to the same folk tale that inspired Ivey's The Snow Child.)
Even though it's a Green Carnation book, Snake Ropes has no overt queer content. Look for lesbian subtext between the lines. An older woman advises one young woman to look after another, stressing mutuality. “Not have one care more than the other, but both have to care just enough. Be yourself first.”
Jess Richards appears to have followed that final bit of advice in creating this unique and enchanting fantasy. I loved it.