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The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, By Elisabeth Tova Bailey

How a gastropod helped a writer cope with illness

Reviewed by Piers Moore Ede

When the writer Elisabeth Bailey falls ill with a mysterious virus, she finds herself confined to bed, her life shattered. As her illness extends from months to years, friends bring her gifts to keep her amused and it is one of these, a common snail, which offers the inspiration for this remarkable book.

Intrigued by the snail's world, Bailey becomes an obsessive observer of the tiny creature in its glass terrarium, a few feet from her bed. She feeds it purple violets and portobello mushrooms and, lying awake in the dark, finds herself strangely pleased by "the comforting sound of the snail's minuscule munching".

On one level this is the simple story of a woman lying in bed watching a snail; on another, some of the most profound observation of the natural world. By studying its movements, eating habits and breeding patterns, Bailey discovers a method of channelling her ennui and an extraordinary metaphor for her own illness. Discovering the snail's ability to hibernate in its shell for several years in times of trouble, she dreams of a time when humans could do the same, and "simply go dormant while the scientific world went about its snail-paced research". And the result: this slim, thoughtful book is a miniature masterpiece.