Tuesday 21 August 2018

The snake has an unfortunate hiss-tory – and here he's at it all over again . . .

The Story of Before by Susan Stairs. Corvus €18.75
The Story of Before by Susan Stairs. Corvus €18.75

Siobhan Hegarty

Ever since a serpent tempted Adam and Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, snakes have had a particularly bad rep. In this novel, a forked-tongued reptile is once again the root of all evil, when children falling out over the fate of a foot-long, yellowish-green toy snake is the harbinger of 'the bad thing' happening.

In this, Susan Stairs's first novel, she tells the story of an ordinary Dublin family, the Lambs, who have to move home to cater for the needs of their growing brood. Little Lamb number four, an impatient baby, Kevin, enters the world early – on the very day of the big move from the South Circular to Hillcourt Rise.

On this red-letter day for her family, 10-year-old Ruth, who is already known to 'sense stuff before it happens', has a weird and frightening experience.

Peeing in the undergrowth in Merrion Square Park opposite Holles Street maternity hospital, she realises with horror that a 'collection of limbs and clothes' – a strange man whose face she cannot see – has been watching her. This is the first of many creepy occurrences that get more unsettling as the story reaches its climax.

This accomplished first novel is recounted over the 21 months the Lamb family live in their new home, before tragedy changes their lives utterly, carving the shape of their future forever into 'the before' and 'the after'.

The narrative is told from the point of view of Ruth, and the author catches the voice of a young girl on the cusp of adolescence – and her life growing up on a housing estate in Dublin in the 1970s – with flashes of brilliance.

The interaction introverted Ruth has with the other children on the green, her outsider status in her family, and the wide-eyed innocence of her first crush on the teenage Shayne Lawless are beautifully crafted in sparkling, clear language.

With this moving and evocative novel, Stairs has won her spurs as an emerging new voice in Irish quality women's fiction. We can even forgive her for not being the best PR lady in the world for snakes.

Irish Independent

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