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Snake Ropes, By Jess Richards

The magical realism of a fantasy island

A rope in dim light could look like a snake, and vice versa. Magical transformations abound in Jess Richards' debut novel, and trade is its guiding theme: the official mechanism whereby one substance is transformed into another.

The narrative is shared between two teenage girls, Mary and Morgan, who live unknown to one another on a remote island. Mary is island-born and speaks its dialect: "dun" for don't, "hims" for his, "them" for they. She lives with her fisherman father and three-year-old brother, Barney; her mother is dead. Morgan and her family are recent arrivals, and she is kept prisoner in the family home by her disturbed mother, while her father works as the island's undertaker ("deadtaker", in their parlance).

The only link with the mainland is the "tall men" who come to trade, taking the women's delicate "broideries" and the men's fish, and leaving in return inexplicable things like pineapples. But boys have been disappearing, and after a brisk altercation with one of the traders, Mary finds that Barney has vanished. Convinced that one of the tall men, Langward, has stolen him, she begins to search for her brother and probe what is really going on under the surface of her sullen community, joining forces with Morgan along the way. Needless to say, Mary discovers more than she bargained for: about her mother, herself, the islanders and Langward.

This is a world where ghosts walk, keys speak and shadows occasionally split away from their owners. Mary's quest is set against a backdrop of unhelpful village women about as clearly differentiated as the pitchfork mob in a Dracula film. The story is spun out to considerable length, mainly because the characters refuse to deliver any useful information when asked, and there's always time to sit down and tell an allegorical story, no matter what the circumstances. Having said that, Richards' interpolated tales, about a sea giantess called Sishee and her drowned dress, or the Glimmeras, a group of discontented sisters turned into rocks, are inventive and magical.

The disappearance of a three-year-old is a harrowing event, but Barney is barely characterised; he disappears at the beginning and his fate is only revealed right at the end. In between, images and symbols fill the pages: dogs, keys, snakes, seaweed, bells, looms, boots, hair. Richards even manages to weave in the myth of the selkie, or seal-wife, into the already rich mix.

Barney's abduction may set the plot going, but one wonders what Mary has been doing for all her young life not to have asked any of these questions before. The problem with fables is that if they spin too far away from realistic human behaviour and motivation, it can be difficult for the reader to care what happens. You can admire Richards' fertile imagination and her direct style, also the clever way she controls her vast network of imagery, but it all feels rather abstract and decorative rather than involving.