New Welsh Review
The Half-Life of Snails
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Sisters Helen and Jennifer live in the shadow of Wylfa Nuclear Power Station. Growing up in a sheep-farming family on the north coast of Anglesey, Wylfa has loomed in the distance throughout their lives. The station is a felt presence in The Half-Life of Snails, an unmistakable part of the landscape described as a ‘sturdy block’ on the horizon and likened to a ‘military base’ or a ‘modernist sculpture’, even a ‘giant sandcastle’. Its presence has led to an invidious situation, as the debate about nuclear power now divides the sisters, with Helen and Jennifer on opposing sides.
The novel follows Helen as she leaves her young son, Jack, in Jennifer’s care while she visits Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone. The narrative moves between Helen’s journey and Jennifer’s struggles to keep Jack happy in her care. In many ways the sisters are opposites. Helen is a motorcycle-riding survivalist, viscerally connected to the landscape and strongly opposed to nuclear power. In contrast, Jennifer is a white-collar worker in the power station who employs a cleaner and believes wholeheartedly in the nuclear project. Tensions between them are high on the eve of Helen’s departure. There are plans for a new power station, one which will take over the family’s farmland. Following an uneasy shared meal, conversation predictably degenerates into argument. There is clear love between the sisters nonetheless, and Jennifer does her very best to look after Jack. This proves to be a progressively more challenging task, however, as Helen becomes caught up in the 2013–2014 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine and does not return as planned. The resultant situation tests all three of them to their limits.
Helen’s life is directed by her apprehensions, principally her conviction that they live permanently on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. She has readied herself and her son for the most apocalyptic of scenarios. Her obsession is driven by trauma, from the slow death of her grandfather to her mother’s advanced stage of breast cancer. Beneath this there are glimpses of another trauma buried deeper, one which will take time to be revealed. Helen’s response to trauma is to neurotically gird herself and her son for what she perceives as mortal danger. She is fixated on the need for inner strength, determined to avoid weakness. She is also very much bound to the land and feels a strong duty to protect it. In the past, Helen witnessed the trauma inflicted upon her community in the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster when sales of sheep were restricted for fear they had been irradiated. Now she is determined to protect her land from the development of the new nuclear power plant which threatens them with eviction if it is to go ahead. The inseparability of her body and the land is reinforced by Helen’s recent discovery of a lump which has appeared on her breast.
Helen’s family are witnesses to the extremity of her views, yet they rely on her strength to face the challenge of her mother’s progressing cancer, and parents are cautious not to take sides between the daughters. More concerning is the extent to which Helen’s paranoia has affected Jack. This becomes harder to ignore the longer he remains in Jennifer’s care, with his school voicing their concerns to her and raising questions of neurodivergence.
Helen’s perspective allows The Half-Life of Snails to explore nuclear anxieties. Fear of the invisible danger of radiation and its pernicious effects pervades the novel. The slow violence inflicted is imagined in the body, most especially the womb. Birth defects develop in lambs and in children, deformities are described, mutations occur, cancer works its way insidiously through tissue. The destructive power of radiation also erodes the feeling of distance between places. Connections are drawn across contaminated landscapes as Helen explores the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, noting parallels with the situation back home and interpreting much of her experience as a warning of what could happen in Anglesey. These parallels between Wylfa and Chernobyl echo many of those drawn previously in Welsh nuclear literature, perhaps most notably in Gillian Clarke’s poem, ‘Neighbours’. For Helen, Chernobyl is a minatory landscape where her deepest fears are realised. These are not just fears of the effects of radiation; there is also the fear of deracination. She sees the land cleared of its people in the zone and the desperation of those who still want to cling to it. She imagines herself as one of these displaced people in the future, unable to bear the thought of being separated from her own landscape, realising ‘she doesn’t own the land, it owns her’.
Holloway’s novel shows us the human story of the nuclear debate. It is both a powerful exploration of personal and social development, and an intriguing insight into arguments about nuclear power.
Morgan Davies’ novel The Burning Bracken was published by Victorina in June. He lives in mid Wales.