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Arrival of the Snake Woman
by Olive Senior
Publisher: Longman Group UK Limited, Essex, England, 1989.
Reviewed by Anna Edwards
Her arrival represented a loosening of the bonds that had previously bound her, that bind all of us to our homes.— Arrival of the Snake Woman
Arrival of the Snake Woman, by Olive Senior, is a collection of seven short stories: “Arrival of the Snake Woman”, “The Tenantry of Birds”, “The Two Grandmothers”, “Tears of the Sea”, “See the Tiki-Tiki Scatter”, “The View from the Terrace” and “Lily, Lily”. Different characters are at the center of each story, however, a few basic themes run throughout the entire book. Senior’s writing style is strong, powerful and direct; these qualities make her stories and characters come alive. The changing role of women, traditions and appearances are the blood running through the veins of these stories.
These themes are the heart of “The Arrival of the Snake Woman”. Women are represented as submissive and obedient, while men go from one woman to another, leaving a string of children in their wake. The women seem to have little control over where they end up, or with whom. It is the “Snake Woman”, a woman originally from India, who breaks this stereotype; she is from a world where businesses flourish, and eventually becomes the wealthiest person in town.
Religious conversion is also an important theme in this story. Before the reverend and his wife arrive, there are only the wise old man and woman who heal, preach and carry on the old traditions. Senior ties in the traditional ways of life with the new ways brought by the reverend in the form of books, medicines and a school. Everyone in the village becomes baptized and attends services so their children can get an education. The Snake Woman eventually gives in and gets baptized so that her son can go to school, though she returns to her native religion when a school is built that is separate from the church.
Appearance is also discussed in this short story. Though the Snake Woman is not white, she is not dark in the same way that the rest of the village is. She is ostracized from the community for a long time due her different physical appearance, the clothing and jewelry she wears, and the food she eats.
“The Tenantry of Birds” is about a woman who is under the control of first her mother, then her husband. She makes no decisions; she doesn’t even have to take care of her children because they’re wealthy enough to have servants. She does not take part in any type of social life outside of her husband’s colleagues and political associates. She eventually realizes that her husband is cheating and that he has no interest in her or their children. At this moment, she seems to become a whole woman, an entity that can stand alone.
The traditions and role of appearances are also changing in this story. The role of a woman is becoming less clear as more and more women become involved in politics. The social norms are being questioned as Jamaica goes through a political transformation. More people of color are earning jobs of status and wealth. Skin color is still a topic of discussion, as each character seems to comment on the lightness or darkness of a person’s skin.
“The Two Grandmothers” is a fabulous story that shows two extremes. A young girl, growing throughout the story, talks of her varying experiences as she visits each grandmother. One grandmother is very traditional; she attends church, makes clothes, cooks, and emphasizes morality. This grandmother is also dark-skinned and fairly poor. The girl’s other grandmother is the complete opposite. She is very light-skinned and wealthy. She goes from one rich boyfriend to another and shuns the traditional role that women play. As the little girl grows, you see how she changes and alters her opinion of each grandmother. It is also seen how the younger generation is becoming more interested in material wealth, skin color and social status. The traditional views and values of the past are fading as American influence pours into Jamaica.
Senior does a wonderful job in these seven stories, describing the traditional and changing thoughts of the Jamaican people. Some of the descriptions show progression towards a better future, others seem to morph into the model of American consumerism, and still others show a transgression. The characters show different reactions to the changes in Jamaica and how they can affect a person, family or village. Senior does a wonderful job of weaving these important topics into stories that are relevant, interesting and entertaining. Her writing style is as informative as it is poetic. Enjoy!