The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey has been attracting a lot of attention for a slim volume with a rather narrow-sounding focus. It is a memoir about the author’s illness but also, as the title suggests, a treatise on the life of a small snail. That may sound dull at first, but the author is a very talented writer who brings her subject to vivid life on the page with captivating results.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey (a pseudonym to ensure the author’s needed privacy) has a very debilitating illness with no known cure nor any effective treatments. I was especially interested in her book because I have the same illness, though not as severe as hers (it is an immune system disorder known in the United States by the euphemistic misnomer Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). Having been struck ill very suddenly, as most of us are, Bailey found herself abruptly ripped from her normally active life and confined to her bed, unable to perform even the basic tasks of daily life.
A friend brought her a pot of violets with an unexpected surprise: a small snail from the woods stuck in the pot that her friend thought she’d enjoy. Her initial reaction was bewilderment:
Why, I wondered, would I enjoy a snail? What on earth would I do with it? I couldn’t get out of bed to return it to the woods. It was not of much interest, and if it was alive, the responsibility – especially for a snail, something so uncalled for – was overwhelming.
But the snail gradually wins her over, providing a tiny slice of living nature right at her bedside, engaging her mind and, as strange as it may sound, providing companionship. She writes of the snail’s fascinating habits and compares its life with her own:
After being transported from the woods, the snail had emerged from its shell into the alien territory of my room, with no clue as to where it was or how it had arrived; the lack of vegetation and the desertlike surroundings must have seemed strange. The snail and I were both living in altered landscapes not of our choosing; I figured we shared a sense of loss and displacement.
Her observations of the snail, fortified with facts she learned during later research, are presented in beautiful, poetic language alongside observations of her own restricted life. It’s hard to describe, but the effect is fascinating and lyrical. I was absolutely stunned by the loveliness of her prose, especially knowing intimately the limitations she was living with while she wrote. She is an inspiration, not only to those of us also living with chronic illness, but to anyone who appreciates excellent writing and a good story.
170 pages, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill