Erina Reddan's The Serpent's Skin is a memorable and evocative Australian novel

  • The Serpent's Skin, by Erina Reddan. Pantera Press, $29.99.

The central character and narrator in this intriguing story is JJ. Living on a remote farm somewhere in Victoria, she is 10 years old when her mother disappears. The family is kept together by 13-year old Tessa who helps out their father Jack as best she can. The other two children are Tim (12) and Philly (9).

Each has some information suggesting that Jack had some responsibility for their mother's sudden departure, information that will become vital after the mother dies in hospital from a burst appendix.

The book is an account of the attempts by different children to find out what really happened to their mother.

During the first half of the book, they are still aged nine to 13; the story then moves on 14 years, by which time they each have their own lives and loves, Tessa married and a mother of twins, the others in stable relationships.

The leader throughout is the volatile JJ, who is given to outbreaks of what she calls "the red" - bouts of irrational fury during which she attacks all before her.

In her mid-20s, she is a successful lawyer with a patient boss and a long-suffering boyfriend.

As far as her father and her siblings are concerned, they wish that she would leave her poor mother rest in peace.

The story reads in places like a detective yarn, in others like an examination of family troubles against a background of Australian rural poverty.

The final explanation for what happened to the mother is believable.

At times, the reader's patience may be stretched by the way the action is dragged out.

But the writing, particularly in the section when the children are young, is delightful, with its charming 11-year-old ways of putting things.

A brumby being trained by Dad is forgotten against the background of all the family trouble: "she got too filled up with sad" and was found dead in a field by JJ. "I snickled in close and laid my cheek against her neck, closed my eyes and went deep into the dark with her."

Even grown up, she uses words in her own way. "Tim and I laughed too, letting his loose curl around us." Or, "I scrunched my face up into the terrible of it."

And there are delightful little pieces of Australian humour: "The priest hobbled out from the sacristy, old and wobbling like a bowling pin."

This is the kind of book that is likely to attract strong opinions. This reviewer is uncertain and was put off by an opening note to the reader that leaves an unpleasant taste, the suspicion of a cryptic anti-male or anti-rural message.

This story A yarn of family troubles and rural poverty first appeared on The Canberra Times.