The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 2010; 208 pages, ISBN 9781565126060, hardcover $18.95.
This small memoire is a skillful meditation on both snails and life, with serious undertones from the author's sudden, mysterious and permanently debilitating illness which struck her at age 34. Formerly a very active artist, she is bedridden in a friend's studio, so weak with paralysis she can't even sit up. Another friend drops off a pot of wild violet plants and a common woodland snail. At first somewhat irritated, then indifferent, to the creature on her nightstand, the author gradually becomes absorbed, watching the snail day after day and developing a sense of kinship: "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."
The snail becomes a focus that helps to involve her in life again. As she writes: "Survival often depends on a specific focus: A relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility. Or something more ephemeral: the way the sun passes through the hard seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket, or how the wind, invisible but for its wake, is so loud one can hear it through the insulated walls of a house." Finally when she is able to return home, she releases the snail into the woods on her country property in Maine. But her interest in snails remained strong, and in the course of her story she shares gracefully the fruits of years of research into these creatures. Anyone reading this will be charmed to learn a great deal about snails as well as the human spirit. -- Sarah Belle Dougherty