The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Algonquin, 2010. ISBN 978-1-565-12606-0.
Reviewed by Susan Ideus
Posted on 09/02/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons

"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."

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating records a year in the life of author Elisabeth Tova Bailey—a year in which she struggled for her survival as her focus was lost, her mobility all but gone and her passion for life trapped inside a body that no longer cooperated with her wishes. With grace and wit, Bailey shares the story of the impact that an ordinary, humble creature, a wild snail, had on her during this trying year, and all of the lessons she learned as she lay motionless, observing in minute detail the everyday rituals and wanderings of her tiny companion.

An active woman with many interests, Bailey became not only housebound but bedridden when she was felled by a mystery illness. She was moved from her own familiar farm home to a small studio apartment to receive the care she could not give herself. For most of the day, Bailey felt anxious and heart-wrenchingly alone. "When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions; the confused family of whys, whats and whens and their impossibly distant kin how." She became distraught, wondering how, or indeed if, she could make it through.

One day, a visiting friend went for a walk in the nearby woods, returning to Bailey's bedside with a pot of field violets in which she had placed a snail. Bailey gave little thought to it, except to wonder if it was feeling disturbed to be out of its element, much as she was. Then she began to watch it move, out of the pot, into the bowl below, exploring its new surroundings. She fell asleep thinking she would probably never see it again, but when she awoke, she saw her new companion back in the pot under a violet leaf and a square hole chewed in an envelope propped nearby. Worried that a snail could not live on paper alone, Bailey set out some withered flower petals near the pot. Within minutes, the snail was contentedly chomping on the petals—and Bailey could actually hear it in the silence of her room. "The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously...the tiny intimate sound of the snail's eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space." This would prove to be a turning point for Bailey.

Time weighed heavily on the author, causing her to ponder, "Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no traces." She also noted, ironically: "It was perplexing that in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose." In the end, it was her gastropod guest who lent some rhythm to her endless hours. Once the snail was moved to a larger terrarium home filled with elements of its native woods, Bailey could lie quietly and calmly, watching it move about: "Its curiosity and grace pulled me further into its peaceful and solitary put me at ease." Like her, the snail was nocturnal. She slept little at night and while this once caused her to fret, she now found comfort.

She began to learn all she could about snails, mainly from older books dating back to Darwin and his companions. What she learned about their habits, their strengths and even their sensuality caused her to have even more respect for the life of her roommate. (I, for one, would certainly have never guessed that a snail could be amorous.) The more she read, the more impressed she was at the complexity of this seemingly simple creature.

Aside from the witty and astute snail observations, this book also is a commentary on the trying life of someone with chronic illness, especially one who is bedridden—issues of loneliness, feelings of abandonment, uselessness. "My bed was an island within the desolate sea of my room." Bailey noted that her friends and former companions did not know how to be around her. It was as if her stillness unnerved them. "Those of us with illnesses are the holders of the silent fears of those with good health." This small book is full of such meditative thoughts, and might well be informative reading for anyone who deals with the chronically ill.

Life with her snail covered only a year of the author's nearly twenty-year struggle with illness, but it was an important one. In a big way, the tiny snail gave her reason to go on. She wrote her doctor: "If life mattered to the snail, and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on..."

Read an excerpt from this book.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey is an essayist and author of short stories, and she has received several Pushcart prize nominations. Her first book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, was based on an essay which received a Notable Essay listing in Best American Essays, and is on the Indie Next Pick List for September 2010. Ms. Bailey lives in Maine. Visit her website.

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