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“I saved you” cried that woman—
And you’ve bit me, even—Why?
You know your bite is poisonous
And now I’m gonna die!
“Shut up, silly woman!”
Said that reptile with a grin—
“You knew damn well I was a snake—
“Before you took me in!”
— Al Wilson, “The Snake”
If we continue to cling to Chekhov’s concept that the reader must not make false promises—aka if you introduce a gun once it has to appear again—I suppose we might as well adhere to a similar idea that if a baby and a snake are introduced in the same story, sooner or later, the baby is going to be eaten by the snake.
Things don’t quite come to that horrifying juncture in Silje Ulstein’s Reptile Memoirs, but they get unnervingly close. This new novel—really more horror than noir—is the first novel of a not-yet-30 Norwegian who knows her way around a sentence and damn sure knows how to plot. While not quite Faulknerian, the plot of Reptile Memoirs twists and (dare I say it?) snakes with treachery from the first page, letting us know immediately that, like the biblical serpent, we are about to spend quality time in a fallen world.
And fallen it is. There are two arenas of action in the book: first 2003-2005 and then 2017. You will want to cling to some grounding events for each section as soon as you can, because Ulstein will whiplash you between those arenas. This book has multiple points of view in several short chapters that move the narrative along but don’t really allow the reader time to cozy up to any of its sometimes-indistinguishable characters.
Well. Wait. The SNAKE, whose name is Nero, gets HIS own chapters as well, and believe me, he’s always ready for a good squeezy cuddle. Nero, we learn quickly, was acquired by Liv, a mostly stoned young woman who is sharing quarters in Ålesund with a couple of slackers named Egil and Ingvar. They probably should have cut down on the PBS documentaries because Liv gets the idea that she wants to own a live python. There’s more to it than that—Liv is an extremely complex character—in fact, as you will learn soon enough, there is more than one personality lurking inside her unshed skin. And in one of those personalities, Liv is locked in an ever-hardening battle of the wills with Nero—one that is about to turn ferocious.
Remember the teacher in Intro to Creative Writing used to say: “What does your character WANT?” Whoa. With Nero THAT’s an easy one! The ever-ballooning girth of the endlessly girth-expanding Nero wants—yes—live prey. No more rabbits and mice—hors d’oeuvre time is over. Nero wants a living human baby, helpfully noting in one of his own sections that “Prey without fur is the best kind.” Julia Child wept.
In a lucid moment, Liv wonders how large her beloved Nero might get before he dispatches her (the snake can talk, sort of) to the Large Mammal House at the Zoo. And well she might fret: the Burmese Python—Nero’s pal—grows to 32 feet and easily ingests just about anything, especially if it’s live and hairless. In 2018 a 54-year-old Indonesian woman was eaten by one of Nero’s kin, who took her in one big swallow, leaving only her sandals left for her horrified family to contemplate. And the problem seems to be that once the snake has tasted larger prey, there is no going back.
Meanwhile, Ulstein is time-traveling like Billy Pilgrim between her locations and her characters and soon we have not only a baby but a young girl who has gone missing in 2017 to fret about. But wait! All this is taking place over in Kristiansund. Now our focus point, another youngish woman named Miriam, is the distraught mother of the little girl who has disappeared. And my goodness! The Kristiansund mom bears an eerie similarity to Liv, who started this entire reptilian drama/trauma over a decade ago—you may need to keep notes—which is great because the writing is that involving. A couple of unusually suffering police officers are now involved—suffering even for Norwegian fictional police officers—and they will have ties both to the events in Ålesund and Kristiansund. Can all this be sorted out before Nero gets the midnight munchies again?
In the end, the very skillful Ulstein checkmates us with her staccato chapters and her whirlwind of characters. The book’s title also says that our own human memoirs, not to mention memories, can be frighteningly cold-blooded—even while assuring us that there is far more to these creatures who are called human than can be explained by anything as basic as Nero’s single-minded desire. “How we let ourselves be tricked, see reflections in the water and think we’re looking at the thing itself,” a minor character tells us. “How we stare at a tiny piece of the world and believe we can see the whole picture.”
Each of these brief chapters is such a tiny piece. Assembled, they give us a slice of life, a full-realized crime novel with all the complexity and humanity such a label has come to embody.
How can you go wrong when your showiest character is a snake? A snake is the secret protagonist of Genesis and endless lesser works leading all the way to Al Wilson’s very scary song quoted above. For Satan and the snake are forever entwined, just as Liv and Miriam are in Reptile Memoirs, because they are one. As Emily Dickinson, not a crime novelist but someone with an acute sense of evil, wrote in her famous description of a serpent:
“Never met this fellow—
Attended or alone—
Without a tighter breathing—
And Zero … at the bone.”
This article originally appeared in the June 10, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.