A woman’s 2014 research trip to Chernobyl has unintended consequences.
Holloway’s debut novel centers on Helen, a single mom whose home in Wales is under threat by the planned construction of a new nuclear power plant to replace an old one. She fears the loss of not just her home, but her rural way of life, which she’s trying to pass down to her 5-year-old son, Jack. (The snails of the title refer to a pair Jack keeps as pets.) Her sister, Jennifer, works at the current plant and is more ambivalent about the land buyouts, though she’s under threat of losing her home as well. To better make the case for nuclear power’s dangers, Helen heads to Ukraine to join a tourist group visiting the catastrophically failed Soviet-era plant there. Soon enough, complications escalate. Helen is separated from the group and then injured without means to send word back home. Jack, staying with Jennifer and her husband, begins acting oddly. And Russia annexes Crimea, setting roadblocks in Helen’s path out of the country. Holloway’s descriptions of the Welsh landscape and the isolation zone around Chernobyl are richly detailed, starkly contrasting lushness and degradation. And she’s meticulous in describing Helen’s relationships with her family and her acquaintances on the tour. All that consideration gives the narrative a certain stodginess that feels ungainly in the latter chapters, which should be more propulsive storytelling about peril and escape. (Subplots involving the sisters’ ailing mother and a highly symbolic orphaned lamb add some additional drag.) But the details persuasively explain Helen's concerns, and Holloway is expert at capturing the fear, verging on paranoia, generated by them.
A savvy if somewhat dense tale of good intentions gone awry.