‘Reptile Memoirs’ by Silje Ulstein – reluctantly set aside at 25%

Liv has a lot of secrets. Late one night, in the aftermath of a party in the apartment she shares with two friends in Ålesund, she sees a python on a TV nature show and becomes obsessed with the idea of buying a snake as a pet. Soon Nero, a baby Burmese python, becomes the apartment’s fourth roommate. As Liv bonds with Nero, she is struck by a desire that surprises her with its intensity. Finally she is safe.

Thirteen years later, in the nearby town of Kristiansund, Mariam Lind goes on a shopping trip with her 11-year-old daughter, Iben. Following an argument, Mariam storms off, expecting her young daughter to make her own way home…but she never does. Detective Roe Olsvik, new to the Kristiansund police department, is assigned to the case of Iben’s disappearance. As he interrogates Mariam, he instantly suspects her – but there is much more to this case and these characters than their outer appearances would suggest.

‘Reptile Memoirs’ called to me. I loved the title and the setting in small-town Norway and the dual timeline storytelling technique. I was looking forward to uncovering the dark secrets of the main characters and watching the two timelines dovetail in surprising but satisfying ways.

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t settle into this book and let it flow through my imagination and I ended up reluctantly setting it aside a quarter of the way through, before the main investigation had even begun.

As I’d expected, the story was grim and a little twisted, with broken characters who relate to the world in unusual and dysfunctional ways. I was curious about the young woman with sexual abuse in her background who can find intense connection and relief only with a darkly beautiful snake and the emotionally distant woman who cannot quite take in the reality that her daughter is missing.

But curiosity isn’t enough to get me through a dark novel full of pain. If that’s all there is, then reading starts to feel voyeuristic and empty. I need to connect with the characters and I found I couldn’t do that. They didn’t seem real to me and if they were real, I didn’t care what happened to them.

The movement back and forth between the two timelines and the perspectives of the two main characters felt a little choppy, disrupting my imagination without adding any tension.

I imagine that the hard-to-empathise-with characters and the slightly jarring transitions between timelines were deliberate devices, intended to make the book edgy and to keep the reader from getting too comfortable and safe, to get the reader to share some of the sense of dislocation that both main characters experience.

I realised that, although I could see how the book worked and admire the design, I wasn’t enjoying myself so I decided that ‘Reptile Memoirs’ wasn’t for me.

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