A Nest of Snakes: The traumas of sexual abuse and moving forward - review

A Nest of Snakes reflects what happens in a society where kids are merely accessories – a society which expects a couple to marry and have children in order to fit in. 

 HARVEY WEINSTEIN in court in Los Angeles on sex-related charges in July.  (photo credit: Etienne Laurent/Reuters)
HARVEY WEINSTEIN in court in Los Angeles on sex-related charges in July.
(photo credit: Etienne Laurent/Reuters)

Most parents have children because they want to build a family. They have positive, warm memories from when they were young – celebrating holidays with family, going on fun vacations together, making up inside jokes and so on. These men and women want kids of their own to carry on cherished traditions, and they have a natural instinct to protect their children. Yet within the last 20 years, report after report has hit the news. 

Cases such as abusive, pedophile Catholic priests being moved from one parish to the next; the Me Too Movement, which exposed Harvey Weinstein; and reports of child pornography have all come to light, causing a level of horror which we can’t comprehend. With so much revulsion, we start to believe that we can never fully protect our kids.

In Deborah Levison’s new novel, A Nest of Snakes, the central place where abuse occurs is Torburton Hall, a boarding school. Schools are where most kids spend the majority of their time away from home, and they should be warm, safe spaces where they can learn and develop social skills. A Nest of Snakes reflects what happens in a society where kids are merely accessories – a society which expects a couple to marry and have children in order to fit in. 

And what happens when those kids are old enough to be sent to boarding school?

The parents go about their normal lives, socializing and working. They only see their kids for limited periods and expect them to do well at school, then get accepted by a top university, where their success will propel them into careers in business or politics.

At first glance, the novel’s main protagonist, Brendan Cortland, seems like a loser. He doesn’t work because he has lived off his father’s trust fund for 30 years. He spends his days on the Internet, hunting down pedophiles. Cortland believes this to be noble work, yet there’s a certain arrogance here. After all, how much can one man do? He doesn’t even go outside to appointments with his psychiatrist. Instead, he gets into a car in his garage and is driven to the door of the doctor’s clinic, where he can jump out and step into the office without being seen. He lives in a perpetual state of despair.

Film producer Harvey Weinstein arrives at the New York Criminal Court during his ongoing sexual assault trial in the Manhattan borough of New York City (credit: REUTERS)Film producer Harvey Weinstein arrives at the New York Criminal Court during his ongoing sexual assault trial in the Manhattan borough of New York City (credit: REUTERS)

CORTLAND WAS severely abused, both physically and emotionally, in boarding school. When the psychiatrist, Dr. Aldrich, broaches the possibility of suing the school in order to bring this abuse to light, Cortland is reluctant at first. However, as he starts to open up to the possibility of putting his past behind him, he also starts to open up to the world. 

Under the gentle guidance of Dylan James, the lawyer to whom the psychiatrist introduces him, Brendan talks about the abuse for the first time. As he relieves himself of the burden of such awful memories, he starts to go outside for walks.

There are many surprising twists and turns in the characters. Irma, the housekeeper, for example, seems like a simple woman who cooks and shops, but she has her own tale of terror. By exacting revenge on those who abused Cortland, she was able to find inner peace. The ex-wife seems like a witch with no redeeming qualities, until she makes a small, significant gesture of reconciliation. What is certain is the fact that the school wove a web of lies as it destroyed the lives of its students.

As a mother whose son is in boarding school, it was very hard for me to read about the abuse. Also, my late brother attended boarding school in Maryland in the early ‘80s, the time in which the book is set. He even wore a maroon blazer, like Cortland. 

On one hand, I am comforted by the fact that my son confides in me and will discuss anything that bothers him. What’s so disturbing, however, is the constant stream of news stories about cases of child abuse, especially in Israel. What propels an adult to abuse children? Why is the world filled with demented, evil people lurking around every corner, waiting to pounce on kids?

As the novel moved through the seasons, I cheered on every step of Cortland’s transformation and was reminded of Albert Camus’s famous quotation: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” 

Not only does this quotation aptly define Levison’s debut novel, The Crate, but it also perfectly reflects Cortland’s transformation. It takes Cortland over 30 years to move from the beauty of the New England fall, through many cold, harsh, winters to spring, when hope starts to blossom and finally bursts into summer, by which time he is able to embrace life fully.

A Nest of Snakes is exquisitely written. It’s long enough to resolve all the issues, yet it flows with purpose. Hanukkah, the festival of lights, is coming up. Just as we add one more candle each night, so the amount of light grows. Similarly, Snakes moves from darkness to light – from a tiny amount of light, to a life which fully embraces light, life and purpose. Hope also runs through this novel, just as it flows through life. 

Put aside a few hours to read this novel – like a snake that traps its prey, it will seize your imagination until you turn the final page.

The writer runs Turn Write This Way, a boutique content agency. She creates biographies, develops marketing materials and translates content from Hebrew to English. 

A Nest of SnakesBy Deborah LevisonWildBlue Press406 pages; $19.86