Funny Little Snake by Tessa Hadley, 2017
The magic trick:
Making the protagonist a surrogate for the reader
We’re looking at three stories this week that each feature protagonists who overstep their bounds to help someone and in doing so complicate the situation. Yesterday it was Edna O’Brien’s “The Creature.” Today, we visit with Tessa Hadley.
Our protagonist, Valerie, is confounded by her 9-year-old stepdaughter, Robyn. The poor kid doesn’t seem to have much going for her. Valerie is annoyed by her presence, but finds something close to sympathy by the end of the story thanks to her odd rivalry with the girl’s mother.
The birth parents in this story are reprehensible. So Valerie the stepmom winds up serving as a kind of a stand-in for the reader. We can’t believe the things these parents say to and about Robyn. It’s awful. They are selfish monsters. Valerie becomes our voice of reason.
It’s not that she’s some angel. She clearly has her own selfish streaks too. But she’s middle-of-the-road enough to be our eyes. We feel like we’re going through the story with her.
And that’s quite a trick on Hadley’s part.
“You’re lucky, I saved those for you specially. I know that little girls are hungry bears. Because Jamie’s a hungry bear, too—he eats everything. I’ll have to hide the food away, won’t I, if we want to keep any of it for you? Are you still my hungry bear, Bobbin?”
Robyn went unexpectedly then into a bear performance, hunching her shoulders, crossing her eyes, snuffling and panting, scrabbling in the air with her hands curled up like paws, her face a blunt little snout, showing pointed teeth. They must have played this game before; Marise watched her daughter with distaste and pity, austerely handsome as a carved ship’s figurehead. For a moment, Robyn really was a scruffy, dull-furred, small brown bear, dancing joylessly to order. Valerie wouldn’t have guessed that the child had it in her, to enter so completely into a life other than her own. “Nice old bear,” she said encouragingly.
“That’s quite enough of that, Bobby,” Marise said. “Most unsettling. Now, why don’t you go and play, darling? Take your crisps away before the Jamie-bear gets them.”
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