Snakeskins by Tim Major

Titan Books, 2019, 407 p.

The supposed genesis of the conceit of this novel could have been lifted from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. In an event called the Fall, one day in 1808 green lights fell through the sky near the village of Ilam in Derbyshire. Unlike in Wyndham’s classic though, nobody was blinded. Instead a change was effected on the people living near where the lights fell. From that point on those few, since dubbed Charmers, on achieving adulthood shed a version of themselves every seven years. These sloughings-off are the Snakeskins of the title, which are identical to the original in every respect including memory, but last only a few minutes before turning to ashes; leaving the Charmer unblemished, younger, and longer lived as a result. Despite being a minority of the population, Charmers, in the guise of the Greater Britain Party, have been in charge of the Government for almost a century. Non-Charmers are second-class citizens at best, resentful of the advantages Charmers have, not least wealth and influence, though they still live and, in the case of one of our viewpoint characters, are schooled, side-by-side. She is Caitlin Hext, at sixteen soon to experience her first shedding. We also see this society through the eyes of Russell Handling, an aide to Government member, Ellis Blackwood, and of Gerry Shafik, an investigative journalist. Handling and Shafik are both non-Charmers.

This Charmers’ Britain is deliberately cut off from the outside world, technically backward. Hence references to Commodore 64s, an Acorn computer, VHS tapes and floppy discs. Yet one character sends a text message. And there is also a comment about an affected American accent. I’d have thought that was not likely to have been heard by the general public if the country’s isolation was as complete as suggested. (While reading it struck me that this book could have been written many years ago as a contemporary piece and only changed slightly for modern consumption after having been dug out of the metaphorical writer’s drawer.)

Caitlin’s Uncle Tobe’s latest shedding (like all such, attended by a Government employee) passes without incident. Caitlin’s, when it comes, provides a surprise. Her Snakeskin does not ‘ash,’ but stays alive. Only days later Uncle Tobe is found dead, a supposed suicide. Russell is contacted by the mysterious Ixion and asked to spy on Blackwood. Gerry begins to investigate the funding of the January care home.

It turns out that not only Caitlin’s but many Snakeskins do not ash, those in Government employ their surviving ones as substitutes in order to function twenty-four hours a day, but others’ – like Caitlin’s offshoot, soon calling herself Kit – are confined to the January care home until they do ash. (Though since the home is to all intents and purposes unregulated, that fate may not be as natural as the authorities pretend it to be.) A thriller plot then ensues with Caitlin helping Kit to escape the home with the aid of unregistered Snakeskins, and Gerry and Russell uncovering the designs Blackwood’s associates have to replace the Prime Minister and anticipate another Fall. The importance of the Hext family to goings-on are also revealed.

The setting-up of the situation is fine and the inter-personal dynamics are reasonably well-handled, those of a character named Dodie’s Snakeskins particularly so, but the text never really convinces as a conspiracy thriller. Moreover, Handling’s amour fou for Blackwood’s wife, Nell, is at best adolescent.

Pedant’s corner:- I read an ARC so some of these may have been changed in the final book. Time interval later count; seven. Otherwise; snuck (too many instances to count; sneaked,) focussed (x2, focused,) “off the edge off the bench” (of the bench,) “the catering company were scheduled” (was scheduled.) “‘What’s kind of trouble is Nell Blackwood in?’” (What kind of trouble.) “She nibbled at a corner of a sandwich” (the sandwich had been mentioned before, there was only one; ‘a corner of the sandwich’, then,) “on the world ‘your’” (on the word ‘your’,) fit (x2, fitted,) focussing (focusing,) sunk (sank.) “‘It was you that I met you in the…’” (It was you that I met in the,) staunch (stanch,) “none of them were experts” (none of them was an expert,) “none of the words were audible” (none … was audible,) “‘I’d be grateful it if you’d answer’” (no ‘it’.)

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