‘The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating’

book cover of The Sound of a Wild Snail EatingI’ve lost my notes on which LibraryThing user first recommended this book to me, but I owe them my thanks. You might think you will speed through this lovely little (just 120 pages) book, but if you are like me you’ll find yourself deliberately slowing down to savor Bailey’s beautiful prose and gentle but keen insights into the natural world as exemplified by the common woodland snail who takes up residence alongside the author during a year of her bedridden life. Here’s a sample:

Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

The little snail is first brought to Bailey inside a pot of wild violets by a friend. At first, she frets about being responsible for the snail, but it doesn’t take her long to realize that when you are so ill that even sitting up in bed is an impossible task without help, being able to focus attention on something that lives at a similar pace can distract you from your own loneliness and isolation. Along the way, Bailey turns her attention to exploring the changes — physical, mental, emotional — her illness has wrought in her.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive.

I’ll be the first to admit that I never gave much thought at all to snails beyond the “fancy restaurant” scene in the movie Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts sends an escargot flying across the room. Bailey provides a surprising amount of factual data about snails in her little book; you might think it would be too much except that in Bailey’s hands it all turns out to be quite fascinating. One of the first things I did when finishing the book was to fire up Google and check out some images of snails since I don’t think I had ever really looked at one before. They really are quite interesting little creatures.

The final jewels in the book’s crown are the epigrams that open each chapter. Apparently the most astonishing variety of writers have contemplated the snail far more than I ever have. Charles Darwin I expected, but Patricia Highsmith? It turns out the author of the Ripley series of psychological thrillers wrote not one but two short stories about snails! Now that’s trivia you can use to wow your literary friends. I’ll give you that one for free, but only if you promise to make some room on your TBR pile for this lyrical book.