Book review: Snake Bite

By John McCrystal

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'Snake Bite' by Christie Thompson.
'Snake Bite' by Christie Thompson.

Since the novel Puberty Blues first scandalised the complacent Australian middle classes in 1979, there have been a couple of updates. There was the film of the book, and there has recently been a television series.

Muriel's Wedding was set in much the same territory and now Christie Thompson's Snake Bite does for suburban Canberra what Puberty Blues did for Cronulla Beach and Muriel's Wedding did for Porpoise Spit.

School is over for the year and 17-year-old Jez is at a tattoo parlour with best mate Lukey to get a new piercing to celebrate. She wants a snake bite - a rivet through the bottom lip on each side of her mouth. Plump, bubbly Laura, newly arrived from Melbourne, strikes up a conversation and invites her and Lukey to enjoy her swimming pool. Jez takes an instant dislike to her, but it's desperately hot and ... whatever. Meeting Laura sets off a chain of events that marks Jez's coming-of-age.

There's not a hell of a lot to like about Kambah, the bogan reach of Canberra where Jez lives.

Nor is there much to like about the Kambah lifestyle, where the summit of anyone's ambition is to swill Bundies, suck bongs, drop pingers and generally get as maggot as possible, maybe casually getting laid along the way.

Jez is embroiled in a friendship with glamorous, nihilistic Casey, in an eerie, ominous reflection of her mum's toxic relationship with nasty Sharon.In each case, the "friend" per-ceives with jealous, reptilian eyes the potential for transcendence that their victim possesses, and seeks to crush it, simply so they won't be alone.

Poor Helen, Jez's solo mum, is an alcoholic who works at a bar and medicates her daily hangovers with "Irish coffee without the coffee".

Shaz is at the club every night to coerce her into drinking. And when Helen has time off, Shaz can be relied upon to totter up the drive, a box of Bundies under her arm and a fag in her mouth to subject her to more of the same.

Similarly, as Jez's true and beautiful friendship with shy, nerdy-emo Lukey comes under strain, Casey is there to initiate her into the code of rules that says girls exist only to be pretty and available to predatory boys. She is a self-appointed arbiter of who and what is "cool" in Jez's life and wardrobe, and it would take a strong personality to defy her.

The central question of Snake Bite is this: is Jez strong enough?

Can she pull herself out of the morass of drugs, alcohol and despair that is Kambah, or is she doomed to become a venomous boozehag like Shaz? Can her love for Lukey be restored? Will she respond to Laura's sincere overtures of friendship? Will she sabotage her mum's desperate efforts to turn over a new leaf? Is there, in short, any hope for any of them?

Snake Bite is brilliantly written, with precisely observed and rendered characters. It's very funny, but with all that ghastliness about, it's black humour: you won't know whether to lol or puke.

Snake Bite by Christie Thompson (Allen and Unwin $29.99)

- NZ Herald

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