Christie Thompson. Snake Bite. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN: 978174343079.
‘What a poser! I bet she’s from Tuggeranong, just like us.’
‘Tuggeranong like us? Are you a Kambah girl now?’
‘Um, let me see. The other week I wore my Ugg boots down to the Village, smoked bongs in three separate backyards, drank my weight in Bundy and Coke and now we’re getting tattooed. Is that Kambah enough for you?’
‘You’ll never be one of us,’ I teased her. ‘No matter how much you want it. See, you just made fun of that girl getting the “ohm” symbol, but every good bogan has at least one eastern religion figure in their house that they bought from the Dollar Shop.’
‘Have you seen my house? Dana and Joan eat that stuff up.’
‘Sorry, but if you pay more than two dollars it doesn’t count.’
Lots of Snake Bite felt familiar to me. I’m not sure if I am reassured or alarmed that being a teenager in the Tuggeranong Valley in the 2000s doesn’t sound all that different to being a teenager in south-western Sydney in the 1980s. Not so much the drugs in my case, not the dysfunctional families, although there was plenty of that going on around me, but the alcohol, the out of control parties, the long aimless summers, the bitchiness between girls, the ties to family tangled up in the yearning to break away, the teenage search for self esteem. Snake Bite felt authentic. It’s what you’d call ‘gritty realism’. If you aren’t up for the worst swear word available in the English language, this book isn’t for you.
Jessica – Jez – is seventeen, and working out who she is in the summer of 2009. The models she has to work with aren’t great. There’s her drug-dealing best friend Lukey, sick of being beaten up by his brother and saving money to head to Melbourne and escape. Her next door neighbour Casey, who has just got a job as a stripper and can’t believe that Jez is affronted by a request for a head job from a guy at a Civic party. Her absent father, away down the coast and always making excuses and half-hearted attempts to make good.
Then there’s her alcoholic mother. Arriving home one night, Jez finds the house open and her mother on the floor:
Frantic, I kneeled at her side. She was fully clothed, belly down on the carpet, arms at her sides. I leaned close to her face. I could hear her breathing. And I could smell the alcohol on her breath. Bundy and Coke…
I cursed myself because this wasn’t a lame soap, it was real life… I went to the fridge in the kitchen and found two West Coast Coolers… Then I went back to where Mum lay and gently unhooked her handbag from her shoulder… I took her packet of Benson and Hedges and forty bucks from her wallet.
Jez knows what she doesn’t want, but she doesn’t seem to know what she does want. She’s tired of her mother and her mother’s friends, of suburbia, of drugs and fights “and this whole scorching claustrophobically hot summer”. She and Lukey don’t want to end up working in Woolies, but a pub would be alright. She feels trapped by her life, but can’t imagine herself anywhere else. She’s torn between a kind of ‘bogan pride’ and a yearning for something different.
Author Christie Thompson evokes that claustrophobically hot Canberra summer well. It falls like a blanket over the aimless days of Jez and her friends, stifling initiative and free will. Their lives are beers in the children’s playground “covered in scrawls of texta and graffiti, under a gum that did nothing to shield us from the sun”. Jez looks down on her world from Mount Taylor, seeing a crowd of houses and ghost grey gums, “a sunken pit of suburbia surrounded by yellow hills.. and [a] shopping mall smack in the centre”. Swimming at Kambah Pool in the Murrumbidgee river may provide a reprieve from the heat, but the lethargy of that summer, and shock realities of the world of the Tuggeranong Valley are never far away.
All Jez is really looking for is a bit of hope. It may be there in the relatively functional family life of her new friend Laura and Laura’s lesbian parents, and in the way they seem to have inspired Jez’s mother. Jez may be trapped in the suburbs, but between the houses and the powerlines she can see the purple Brindabellas.
Eventually summer will end. Canberra is famed for its autumn leaves, but in the newer suburbs like Kambah the street trees are all eucalypts, so “the season’s change creeps up slowly, then bam, it’s colder than a nun’s fanny.” The evolution may be hard to discern, but it’s there.