BOOK REVIEW: THE SERPENT KING, BY JEFF ZENTNER (2016)

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 11.00.30I should read Young Adult books more often. Whenever I hear or read that a particular YA book is good, I make a note of it, but, when I’m at the library and I’m about to borrow it, I often decide not to. It’s probably, partly, a form of snobbery. But also–my teenage years weren’t great. Do I really want to be reminded of them? Especially as I’ve been so good at forging a completely different life for myself, and a completely different persona, since I moved from Italy to the UK for University. But sometimes I do decide to borrow that book, and when I eventually read it, I find it hard to stop, and I find it hard not to find parts that make me laugh, parts that make me cry, and parts that make me want to read them aloud to whoever happens to be in the vicinity.

This is exactly what happened with The Serpent King. I probably wouldn’t have read it if my wife hadn’t made me, and, even in its first 100 pages or so, I found some of it almost too cringe-inducingly reminiscent of my own adolescence to keep going–but man am I glad I didn’t give up, and read it till the end.

The Serpent King is set in small-town Tennessee, and alternates between the perspectives of three friends going through their final year of school: Dill, a musician with a tendency towards melancholy and poetic observations; Travis, a book nerd and gentle giant; and Lydia, a fashion blogger, and incredibly funny, smart and ambitious. They are all misfits. Dill’s father, a Pentecostal preacher known for imbibing strychnine at church services and ornamenting his arms with live cottonmouths (this is an actual thing), is in jail for skeevy pornography. Travis is unabashedly nerdy, always wearing a dragon medallion, often carrying a large wizard’s staff. And people at school resent Lydia her internet fame, and despise her for the disparaging way she talks about their home town in her blog. On top of all this, Travis and Dill both come from profoundly unhappy families. And because Lydia is heading to college and he can’t even conceive of applying, Dill in particular feels like he has nothing to look forward to but a life of crushing loneliness, in a backwards town named after the founder of the KKK, where people will always think of him as the son of that pervert preacher.

This may sound depressing–and The Serpent King does contain moments of incredible sadness, with a particularly devastating event in its second half. But the sadder, more serious parts of the novel never felt like misery porn–rather, they lent it gravitas. There is plenty of warmth, plenty of lovely reaffirmations of friendship, of kids just having a good time, watching weird films, going shopping, talking about crushes. Lydia, in particular, is tremendously funny, almost too funny, in a way that struck me sometimes as pretentious–until I remembered that the more pretentious quality of her humour would have been the exact thing I would have appreciated and emulated as a similarly precocious teenager. In fact, Lydia is such a powerful force of positivity in the book–without becoming that dreaded thing, a manic pixie dream girl (she is a three-dimensional character with agency and a strong sense of purpose)–that, without the anchoring provided by Dill’s struggles with poverty and his toxic heritage, and Travis’s messed up relationship with his father, the novel would have felt way too light.

Now, if I read more YA, I’d also point out that it’s rare for this sort of book to be set in the South, to have poverty as one of its key themes, and to follow two characters for whom going to college after school is not a given. But I learned all these things–which make me admire the novel all the more–from interviews with the (rather dreamy) author which I read while procrastinating/looking for inspiration for this review.

So–I can’t easily compare The Serpent King to other YA books, simply because I don’t read that many (though this will change). But I can compare it to my own adolescence. Like Lydia, I was privileged, super-smart, pretentious, and looking forward to an ever-approaching future where I’d leave my disappointing adolescence behind and build myself a new life with many new friends who accepted me for who I was. Like Dill, I was prone to melancholy, and nursed an unspoken crush towards my best friend. Like Travis, I spent most of my free time with my nose in a book. Like all three, I only had two good friends (and, as it happens, one of my friends was a tall nerdy guy, the other a highly extroverted girl). And I have to say, Zentner captures perfectly all the things that the characters have in common with my teenage self, and even makes me understand my teenage self better than I did at the time or than I used to before reading this book. It was almost like therapy. In particular, I feel more forgiving of my teenage self and all his flaws, and I wish I’d read this book when I had more than one fight with one of my friends about the fact that, when I went off to the UK, I’d be leaving her behind.

All the emotions, man. This book gave me all the emotions. Just go and read it, it’s great.

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