Bolton is simply an extraordinary writer, her new thriller after Sacrifice as unique and shattering as the first. Veterinarian Clara Benning, her face disfigured by a scar from childhood, has sought refuge caring for wild animals at a small clinic in rural Dorset, England. The first line of the novel says it all: “Human cruelty never surprised me.” Thinking herself relatively anonymous in a small village far from the city, when an outbreak of snakes terrifies the local residents, it is to Clara that they turn, assuming her to have some kind of expertise on the subject.
But Clara has no explanation for the snake lying across a sleeping baby in the morning sun or the elderly man killed by a poisonous adder or the house full of a variety of snakes, including a particularly venomous species from Papua New Guinea. Her private space suddenly invaded by a detective constable who doesn’t seem the least deterred by her disfigurement, Clara is caught in the center of the controversy, both for her expertise and her strangeness.
Tightly-plotted and impossible to put aside, Awakening is filled with snake lore and a cast of characters that vacillates from eccentric to menacing, the village’s history hiding a secret that has left many elderly people in jeopardy, a quiet threat that has yet to be noticed by authorities. Bolton’s grasp of human nature in crisis is pitch-perfect, the unpredictability of fear and hysteria, the mythology of snakes and a tragedy in 1958 that changed the village forever - and sealed its secrets in silence and shame.
Turning for help to an expert on snakes, Clara finds a kindred soul but is paralyzed by her exposure to others, whether in a small-town meeting or a group of frightened residents demanding answers and security, including the detective constable, who doesn’t seem to realize how much his presence rattles Clara’s self-confidence. In fact, he appears oblivious to the emotional turmoil that assaults her every time he invades Clara’s personal space. After years of carefully controlling her environment, Clara is coming dangerously close to panic from exposure to others, be it the brutal interrogation of the local police or the studied advances of the snake expert, who senses a woman sympathetic to his oddities.
In the unfolding of Bolton’s characters, much is revealed about the nature and definition of identity and the way we relate to the world around us. There is more at stake than snakes on the loose, shy creatures which do not normally seek the attention of humans. The past has come back to haunt this village, Clara bravely searching where others fail, oblivious to danger in her need to know the truth and put an end to her suspicions, all the while grieving the loss of her mother. A talented storyteller, Bolton matches good and evil, the darkest heart of human cruelty and the miracle of healing.