Snakes occupy a peculiar position in the human psyche; in different cultures they have been associated with everything from birth to death, with liberal helpings of sex thrown in for good measure. Most of us are both fascinated and repelled by snakes, and Jeremy Seal is no exception. The Snakebite Survivors' Club begins with an account of how he can't bring himself to go into the reptile house at London Zoo. Being a travel writer, Seal is clearly both certifiable and able to spot good copy when he sees it, so he naturally concludes that the only solution is to set off round the world in search of as many lethal snakes and those who have survived their bites as possible. Seal's journeys through America, Africa, Australia, and India are every bit as engaging as you might expect from the man who wrote A Fez of the Heart--a book whose only failing was its badly punning title. Where Seal scores heavily is that he never becomes detached from his subject matter, unlike so many travel writers, who tend to waltz imperiously though foreign parts, affecting an intimacy they never achieve. Even when Seal is talking history, myth, or religion, he's never less than personal.
Seal's interest is more than curiosity, it's phobic--and that's what makes it so compelling. Whether he's meeting the American woman who survived her husband's attempt to murder her with a rattlesnake, or the Kilifi man who survived a black mamba, or the conveniently named Dundee--the Australian who shrugged off a taipan--you can sense his subtext: "What would I have done?" and "Could I have survived?" The same feelings permeate the historical. When he retraces the steps of the first Australian to catch a taipan, you know that he's somehow expecting a snake to appear in the same place. And when it doesn't, like Seal, you are both relieved and disappointed. The Snakebite Survivors' Club is a rare mix of intelligence and whimsy, but don't for a minute think it will cure you of your fear of snakes. So if you're feeling faint-hearted, grab a copy and head for Ireland, where--legend has it--there isn't a snake in sight. --John Crace, Amazon.co.uk
From Publishers Weekly
Equal parts exotic adventure, naturalist lore, soul-baring confessional and offbeat history, this elegant travelogue focuses on serpentsAin the wild, in diverse cultures and in myth, religion and the popular imagination. Determined to overcome his lifelong fear of snakesAand to probe his obsession with themAEnglish journalist Seal sought out and interviewed snake-bite survivors and snake experts on four continents. His maverick odyssey opens with a Southern gothic horror tale in Alabama, where a wife-beating, hard-drinking, snake-handling preacher tries to murder his wife by getting his church's diamondback rattlesnakes to bite her. In both Alabama and Tennessee, Seal attends rapturous congregations where handling of venomous snakes is part of Christian ritual (literally following the biblical injunction, "They shall take up serpents"). In Australia, he meets a Stetson-wearing outbacker (named Dundee, of course) who survived a lethal snake bite. Through tales of snake lore, Seal charts Australia's metamorphosis from dumping-ground for convicts to independent frontier nation. In south India, he found that the traditional Hindu reverence for snakes persists, in sharp contrast to the West, where the serpent is usually associated with sin or evil. In Kenya, Seal visits a snake park and meets mchowis (witch doctors) who dispatch snakes to bite wrongdoers. In 1776, a rattlesnake with 13 rattles adorned the American flag, symbol of the rebellious colonists' fierce independence. Seal's delightful book may forever change the way readers think about snakes; his serpentine forays into human folly, superstition, courage, fear, cruelty and benevolence verge on the Monty Pythonesque, and his footloose, open-minded spirit recalls Bruce Chatwin. (Mar.)
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