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The Sound Of A Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, is one of the most moving and inspiring books I have read in a very long period of time. I probably wouldn't have discovered it had it not been for an illness I have in common with hers, that being Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and associated dysautonomia. Having these conditions now for over fifteen years the struggle with life led me to seek companionship with others, and the resulting membership I have of many on-line support groups always alerts me to new publications and articles, covering not only the illness from a medical perspective, but also to many books which concentrate on the more emotional aspects of the condition, as it affects daily living. This is the beauty of The Sound Of A Wild Snail Eating as it is a unique insight into the world of the bedbound, and offers a superb read which I feel is inspirational in its simplicity.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey is not the author's real name, as she has to lead a very quiet life in order to cope with the illness and its limitations. All you need to understand is that everything in the book is true, and is seen from her eyes, as she battles with a condition that for many years kept her in bed. Dysautonomia is a condition which often comes hand in hand with ME, and makes it impossible, or very difficult, for the sufferer to remain upright for any length of time, as the illness affects the autonomic nervous system which controls heart rate and blood pressure. At its worst the author was condemned to a life in the supine position for months on end.
One day a friend of the author's came to visit and decided she would bring her something to focus on, and so she brought a snail in from the garden which she placed in a large pot. She also brought in a bunch of violets for the snail to eat. This snail fills the author with horror, as she is at this point too ill to sit up, and she wonders how she is ever going to look after this creature.
What then develops is a wonderful relationship between herself and the snail which fills the entire book. This may seem incredible and rather mundane, but I can't begin to put into words the beauty of this book, and what I have gained from this relationship between human and snail. The writing and the thought provoking messages this story has left me with are simply incredible, and the book now sits by my bedside and probably will for the rest of my life.
Sitting on the precipice between life and existence this book weaves the tale of mutual respect between the snail and the sick one. For Elisabeth, life moves so very slowly, and friends who visit fidget and clock watch, as their lives race through time like juggernauts on a road trip. She can only eat; sleep and lie, and even the former are difficult and require a day's energy to complete. The snail travels through time as if every moment matters, savouring the Portobello mushrooms the author's carer brings for it - a mushroom last a week. Being bedbound the author has every opportunity to lie and watch the snail, and what starts of as a tie she didn't really want, eventually becomes a knot she never wants to sever.
The book portrays in depth the isolation the author feels as the months pass and the seasons change. Friends stop by less, their lives busy, and in essence her life becomes as isolated as the snail's. Positively though, snails enjoy the scents of woodlands and the feel of the undergrowth, yet they can't see. So, when compared to incapacity, every aspect of life that "being well" takes for granted takes on a special meaning when senses are lost and abilities are lessened. It is a book celebrating the joy of little things and the pleasure which comes from stopping and appreciating them.
As the book comes to a close the author has made some progress. She can now leave bed for some time, and so eventually the moment comes to part with the snail, and let the memory remain whilst the bond becomes devoid of the physical attachment. Ironically she comes to realise that although her illness has still a great hold on her, restricting her life to her house, that her human need to "do" and to "accomplish" starts to appear again, even in minor ways. It soon becomes obvious that it would be a commitment to spend time watching something as insignificant as a snail. That pure joy which came with the connection between the two lives, each mirroring each others was changing, but so much had been loved and would never be lost.
There is so much to be gained from reading this book. There are some of the most beautiful descriptive passages and analogies between the snail and the author. My favourite piece has to be when she is comparing the way her medications have to be in minute doses, as is common in the illness. Her prescriptions resemble those designed for a mouse they are so tiny. She can't tolerate noise - even the telephone sends tsunami shock waves through her, and so she can only listen to Gregorian chants at a very low level. She states - "I wonder what Benedictine monks would think of singing to a gastropod!"
The book is a celebration of nature and a prescription to stop. In many ways I see in this book what I have come to see over fifteen long years wrecked by the symptoms of this illness, and that is that the little things in life and the joys of simplicity and time are the most sustaining pleasures of all. A cosy cat by the fireside, a dog lying next to me, or even a garden snail in a pot of violets.
You don't need to have ME to appreciate this book. It is a tale of simplicity, and a recipe to regain childhood and appreciate simple things.
The snail has offspring in the book, little shell covered miracles in miniature. A symbol that life goes on even at a snail's pace.
The book retails on Amazon for £9.07 and was published in September 2010.
This review will also be posted on Ciao under my user name Violet1278.