What’s Valuable

jisept2008snakealongriverviewbikepathExcerpts from SJ Bolton’s excellent suspense novel Awakening (2009), set in a small village in Dorset, England, with a wildlife veterinarian, Clara, as the primary protagonist. Clara’s face is seriously scarred due to a childhood incident. She becomes involved in a 50-year-old tragedy, many secrets, some old-time religion, and a boatload of snakes.

In some ways, this book is about what we choose to demonise and what we choose to sacralise.

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“The Little Order of St. Francis, where I’ve worked for nearly five years, was founded by Catholic monks in the late nineteenth century to treat sick and injured wild animals. These days a charitable trust keeps it going …. We treat any British wild animal — mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian — no matter how small or how badly injured. Only when an animal is in so much pain that to treat it would be to cruelly prolong its suffering do we put it down. Some people accuse us of being ridiculously sentimental, of squandering charitable goodwill that could go to more deserving causes. Personally, I think people should be free to choose for themselves the object of their charity and that all lives, every tiny, secretive, short ones, have a value and a purpose.”

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“He could cope with the sickest, most badly injured animal but found it hard to deal with deliberate cruelty. ‘How do you do it, Clara? How do you stay so calm?’ he’d asked me once, tears streaming down his face as we’d euthanized a young fawn whose eyes had been gouged out by a gang of teenagers.  He and the rest of the staff thought me cold. But how could I tell him that human cruelty never surprised me. I’d been dealing with it every day for as long as I could remember.”

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“So many people tried to encourage me with hopes of a normal future. Not every man is obsessed with looks, Clara, they’d say. You’ll meet someone who will see the beautiful person you are on the inside. As though being badly disfigured automatically makes you a better person. Like what’s inside, by default, has to make up for what’s gone wrong on the surface.

“These kind people are wrong. I’m not beautiful on the inside. How can I be when people shy away from me, when drunken men crack crude jokes at my expense and teenagers follow me in the street, cat-calling and taunting? How can I even be normal when I am afraid to buy clothes from a shop because no one will willingly serve me? How could a beautiful soul survive a lifetime of that sort of treatment? So I am not beautiful, inside or out. I have a chip on my shoulder the size of a boulder, as my sister frequently and accurately reminds me. I am painfully shy, permanently short-tempered and totally self-obsessed.”

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“A charismatic but seriously disturbed man had arrived in the village, throwing the quiet, orderly life of rural England into uproar with his terrifying but totally compulsive way of preaching. The congregation — normal, decent people for the most part — had seen a temporary escape from the monotony of daily life and grabbed at it. They’d followed his lead along the path, which had seemed innocuous at first: services were a little more thrilling; practices that might be unconventional but were surely harmless. And gradually, the path had darkened ….”

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