Review: Elisabeth Tova Bailey – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

The Sound of a Wild Snail EatingThe Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stricken by illness, unable to move from her bed and barely able to move within it, the author is given a plant in a pot by a friend. Along with the plant comes a snail. So begins a surprising – and surprisingly touching – relationship.

Almost from the snail’s introduction we can feel Bailey’s affection for it. She makes us share in her wonder and her delight at this small creature. Bailey does not gush. Indeed, if anything her observations are more inclined to be clinical, but within that dispassionate observation she finds new wonder, new things about her companion at which to marvel and to admire, new grounds for affection. There is so much here in this creature to be uncovered in its behaviour, in the history of its kind, in its anatomy, and in all the things that come together to give the world this quintessence of snail.

Bailey makes it clear that, in order to be so fascinated, so enchanted, it is all-but necessary to be alone and immobile for a long period of time. That is not to say that the snail is the last resort for her insofar as it is in some way second-best. Far from that. Rather the relationship, forced upon her by fate, opens a new way of viewing the world away from its usual hurry and scurry. Her relationship with the snail is contemplative, almost meditative. In its slow movement, its tiny gestures, its preferences, even in its curiosity – none of which Bailey anthropomorphises to a tiresome degree, though parallels with people are drawn with some validity in the assignment of emotion and motivation – an entire world is opened up. We may too readily forget that the world we live in is not only broad, it is deep. For want of breadth, Bailey plunges into the life of her companion finding more and more to explore, a world in a snail on a crate being used as a bedside cabinet.

Bailey is frank, too, about her illness, in the frustrations it presents and in its emotional and philosophical impact. Here, perhaps, a parallel may be drawn given that it, too, becomes a point of focus into which she delves for want of anywhere else to go rather than remaining on its surface and succumbing to misery.

Bailey doesn’t give the impression that it takes a special kind of person to so befriend a snail in such a situation. Instead she is frank that in telling us that, had it not been for the snail, she may well have perished from desperation. She doesn’t portray herself as a natural philosopher, just a person going through a very difficult time but with a point of focus which occupies her sufficiently to make life worth living and, within that point of focus, lessons to be learned in abundance.

Bailey draws no spiritual conclusions, but for those of us whose spiritual tendencies lean towards the pragmatic there are spiritual lessons here all the same.

A small, unique treasure of a work which says little more than a snail may tell us, but clearly snails have much to say if we would – if we only could – stop and listen.

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