It’s been a while since I’ve been to a literary event, and three years since I last went to Chiswick Book Festival in 2016, so another visit was long overdue. Yesterday, I went to two events: Sadie Jones talking to Cathy Rentzenbrink about her latest novel ‘The Snakes’ and Sonia Purnell discussing her book ‘A Woman of No Importance’ with Julia Wheeler.
‘The Snakes’ tells the story of Beatrice, the thirty-something daughter of multimillionaire property developer, Griff Adamson. Having more or less cut herself off from her parents and their money, she works as a psychotherapist and lives in a small flat with her husband Dan, an estate agent from a working-class background who doesn’t know the full extent of Bea’s family’s wealth. They plan to use their savings of a few thousand pounds to travel across Europe for a couple of months and stop to visit Bea’s brother Alex in the dilapidated hotel he runs in the south of France. However, Bea’s parents drop in for a surprise visit and when tragedy strikes, Bea is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about the family’s past.
It’s fair to say the Adamsons are one of the most dysfunctional families I have ever come across in fiction. Jones said she wrote the first draft in 2016 and when asked about the similarities between Griff and Donald Trump, she said that Griff is a better businessman than Trump and more charismatic. She mentioned the moral behind the children’s story ‘The Old Woman and the Vinegar Bottle’ as a key inspiration behind the main theme of the trappings of wealth: no matter how much someone already has, there is always something else they lust for as well.
Jones discussed her writing schedule – she prefers to get as much done in the morning as possible, and likened the feeling of things going well to skydiving after the initial fall from the plane and before the parachute is released. Social media and the relentless news cycle remain a distraction, though.
The ending of ‘The Snakes’ has proved to be divisive among readers and I am among those who found it jarring, mostly because the themes and metaphors associated with money, greed, family loyalty and, of course, snakes are dealt with so subtly up until that point. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful novel overall and a very memorable one too.
‘A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of WWII’s Most Dangerous Spy’ by Sonia Purnell is a biography of Virginia Hall, an American woman who joined the British Special Operations Executive during the Second World War and played a crucial role in recruiting agents for the French Resistance. Born in 1906 in Baltimore, she abandoned her fiancé to study languages in Europe and lost a leg in a shooting accident in her twenties while working for the US State Department in Turkey. Despite this setback, she became an ambulance driver in France when war broke out and a chance meeting with an undercover British agent led to her joining the SOE. Based in Lyon, she organised jail breaks, escape routes and various acts of sabotage.
Purnell acknowledges in the book and in her talk that Hall’s character remains enigmatic and elusive due to the nature of her undercover work, but Hall’s niece has been a valuable source of information regarding what she was like as a person. On her return to the United States after the war, Hall worked for the CIA but was sidelined and relegated to office work despite her formidable experience in the field. The book’s title reflects Hall’s perceived position before and after the war, whereas the peak of her SOE work proved to be personally liberating for her.
Following her death in 1982, Hall has steadily gained wider recognition for her work but is still relatively little known today. However, this may not be the case forever – J. J. Abrams has snapped up the film rights of the book and an adaptation is currently in development with Purnell writing the screenplay. While it looks like it will be a long time before Hall’s story hits the big screen, Purnell’s biography is a thorough yet accessible account of this extraordinary woman’s life.