📑Review: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner 🐍
"Dillard Early, Jr., Travis Bohannon and Lydia Blankenship are three friends from different walks of life who have one thing in common: none of them seem to fit the mold in rural Tennessee's Forrestville High. Dill has always been branded as an outsider due to his family heritage as snake handlers and poison drinkers, an essential part of their Pentecostal faith. [...] His only two friends are Travis, a gentle giant who works at his family's lumberyard and is obsessed with a Game of Thrones-like fantasy series (much to his alcoholic father's chagrin); and Lydia, who runs a popular fashion blog that's part Tavi Gevinson and part Angela Chase, and is actively plotting her escape from Redneckville, Tennessee. As the three friends begin their senior year, it becomes clear that they won't all be getting to start a promising new life after graduation. How they deal with their diverging paths could cause the end of their friendship. Until a shattering act of random violence forces Dill to wrestle with his dark legacy and find a way into the light of a future worth living." - From Google Books
Hello, my name is A of JAF and I am a book hoarder. That is to say, as well as buying books when I still have many to read, I have the tendency to not get rid of books, despite them not necessarily being something I would read (I refer to the books I get in bookish boxes for example).
Sometimes, those books stay sitting on my shelf, and I try not to make eye contact as I pass them by, hands full from my most recent impromptu bookstore or Amazon visit.
But, every once in a while, I pick a book up when suffering from a book hangover or reading slump, a book I would not usually pick up on ‘good’ days. Maybe because it’s been recommended to me by a friend, maybe because I need something different to snap me out of my mood, and that book turns out to be the antidote.
This is what The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner was, a book hangover/reading slump antidote. My incomparable reading buddy Fatima suggested I read it when an instagram poll almost unanimously told me to tackle my TBR, and so I did. I picked up the book included in my Owlcrate box two years ago, took it to the beach with me, flipped open its pages and...
could not put it down.
The Serpent King is a coming of age story filled with love, loss, happiness and growth, pain and hope. It did not have a drop of fantasy or anything even remotely magical in it, something I usually look for in a book. As it turns out, it didn't need any of those things. It was just as powerful, just as moving, raw and gritty and real without the sheen of fantasy to represent reality. It represented reality just fine without any stand-ins and metaphors.
It, I am unashamed to say, made me cry in public. It is bittersweet, told in the alternating perspectives of three friends in their senior year of high school Dill, Lydia, and Travis, dealing with their pasts, their futures, and the struggles of letting go of the former to reach the latter.
Whether it’s Lydia’s eclectic fashion sense and refusal to fit the status quo, Travis’s size belying unabashed sensitivity, nerdy proclivity and love of fantasy, or Dill’s love of music and inability to shake off the shadow and sins of his father, there is something in all of them that makes them different. But it is those differences that bring them together, their support of each other despite them, their ability to find peace and quiet while watching trains pass, to fight to live beyond the confines that that their socio-economic backgrounds, peers, and even their own families provide.
It is, first and foremost, a character piece, a study of friends reaching a turning point in their lives who want to escape their predicaments and find both solace and resistance from each other. It is a look at how communities, even family, can either build or break you, at how struggling with your beliefs does not mean abandoning your faith. Zentner takes all those concepts, friendship and family and faith (the three F's? teehee) and weaves a story that breaks your heart while simultaneously gives you hope.
There were a few references that were made in the book that left me feeling like I was missing something, that I had skipped a vital section or missed the initial mention of. One was the column, which was talked about casually the first time as if it was a place that the reader should have known about (as the trio tended to go there?). But, unless I did miss something without realizing it, the fact that they hung out there often seemed to come out of nowhere. The second was the story of the Serpent King, who is apparently Dill’s grandfather. We are never really told what happened with him. Dill tells the story to ???, but as a reader you don’t really know who he was or what happened other than very vague references which I think you’re supposed to gather up a conclusion from.
But, other than those two facts, and my occasionally wanting to punch Dill for being almost selfish and Lydia for being borderline callous (Travis was a teddy bear that should be protected at all costs) I would recommend The Serpent King. I did not relate to the characters, not really, but sometimes you don’t have to relate to a character in age or experience to empathize with them, to feel their pain and joy and want them to succeed. My heart hurt at their predicaments, at the paths they were being forced upon and I rejoiced when alternatives presented themselves.
It was a great debut from an author I hope to be reading many more things from.
(Some) Memorable Quotes:
“Nothing makes you feel more naked than someone identifying a desire you never knew you possessed.”
“If you're going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”
“Writing is something that you can learn only by doing. To become a writer, you need an imagination, which you clearly have. You need to read books, which you clearly do. And you need to write, which you don't yet do, but should.”
“That wouldn't be a bad way to die...giving off light for millions of years after you're gone.”
“We live in a series of moments and seasons and sense memories, strung end to end to form a sort of story.”
“Because we should do things we're afraid of. It makes it easier every time we do it.”
If anyone has read The Serpent King, let us know what you think in the comments below! Comments also open to further book/movie/show recommendations, anything you’d like to see reviewed, or general feedback. We’d love to hear what you have to say!