This is quite an odd, slightly rambling book that is very strong on atmosphere and in which, unusually, the parents of the protagonist, Roger, are allowed to play a role. It was first published in 1988 and feels like the product of a more generous age in which stories were allowed to unfold and retain some mysteries unexplained. It is rich in sensory detail, conveying the exoticism that was rural France to the middle class English and also something of the fear of the unknowable and foreign. The family's French is credibly poor and ambiguity and uncertainty about what has been seen and heard add to the tension of the story.
Roger, his parents, and his twin sisters, Polly and Emma holiday in a crumbling french chateau, inhabited by the owner Monsieur Serpe and his goat milking daughter Melusine. Serpe also claims a second daughter who has gone away. The underlying sense of menace is present from the beginning when Roger sees houses painted with question marks on their way to the chateau and from the beginning there are hints that all is not well.
Roger and Melusine become friends though she seems strange in many ways. The family explore the region, which is atmospherically described, and discover local depictions of Melusine, a mythical creature, woman by day and snake by night, who is associated with the region.
From his arrival,Roger has been disturbed by rustlings in his room at night. There have been indications of Melusine's strangeness, Roger saw her dancing the music of a 'snake charmer' in La Rochelle and when his sister almost drowns ,she saves her without apparently getting wet.
Roger observes her sitting on her father's knee and gradually understands that she is being abused by him. He confides his worries to his parents. Roger's suspicions regarding Melusine's strange nature are confirmed when at night Melusine in snake form shares his bed.
Roger and his father discover a secret underground passage which take them into the tower, a part of the crumbling chateau Melusine refused to show him. There they find a coffin in a kind of shrine. Monsieur Serpe finds them there and attempts to shoot them with his shot gun but something prevents him from hitting them. Roger sees Melusine, in snake form, over power her father, described as an 'ogre' throughout and push him from the window. He dies shouting about his daughters. Roger's father thought he was asking them to bring him 'donnez' his daughters when in fact he was asking for pardon form them ( pardonnez)
When the police arrive Melusine has disappeared, the coffin is discovered to contain the body of M's older sister who committed suicide. It is later suggested that this occurs as she too has suffered abuse at the hands of her father. After her father's death Roger finds Melusine'ss hed snake's skin and buries it. When he finds Melusine, hiding with the goat feed, ' Melusine emerged from her snake self, she was all human now, and that shedding had taken the snake look she had had, leaving her almost supernaturally new and beautiful' 198 also the distinctive characteristics of her skin had changed. When he finds the snake under his bed he knows it is Melusine when he moves her hand along her arm 'that special , warm-cool, hard-soft skin he had touched before that could only be hers' After er father's death and the burial of the skin 'It was a girls' hand that he held.'
As Melusine is orphaned and her only relative lives in Canada, Roger's family agree to let her live with them for a short time. En route to England, there is a car accident in which Roger and his mother are slightly hurt when they crash into one of the painted question marks on a wall. There is no sign of Melusine and they return home without her. Roger cannot settle and even confides his belief that she could change into a snake to a psychologist. His mother seems to understand his passion for her, and the bond between them. They find her reclaiming the chateau and trying to make it beautiful, and Roger helps her open the door of the chateau to the fresh air and golden evening sun for the first time in perhaps a hundred years.
The book is particularly interesting for its handling of Roger's growing sexual awareness; his voice breaks at a key moment in the story, when he volunteers to sleep in his own room, even after he knows about the snake; there is much emphasis on the touch of their hands, when she helps him with the milking, when he touches the snake's skin for the first time, when he finds her crying in her bed and once he accepts Melusine in snake form 'Besides, he wanted to touch her. Even like this.
The small flat head lay under his hand.
Warm cool. Rough -smooth. Pulsing softly with life.
He stroked her very gently. She lay still' p151
His growing awareness of his own feelings takes a long time to make sense and perhaps is only fully clear when his mother speaks of her own 'love' for a much older boy when he was young, but it is very clear to the reader that Melusine has a sexual hold on him. Is he tempted by snake as seductress? There are many references to the garden of Eden most obviously in the pattern of the table in their apartment in which the figure of the snake is hidden. Exiled to the guest apartments Melusine takes possession of it once she returns home as chatelaine. The folk figure of Melusine referred to in the guidebook is good woman by day and evil snake at night and yet she does no evil, though evil is done to her and her snake form appears to be a way to escape from her father.
The sexual abuse is dealt with almost entirely from Roger's perspective, he is at first only half aware of what he's seen. 'He lay awake a long time, wondering not so much what exactly he'd seen, but why it had made him feel so upset and angry...' Later, after he has slept entwined with the snake, when playing a game of 'Scruples' his family his sister makes a connection between 'abuse' and sex'. 'Roger... stared at his cards unseeingly. Sex. It was out. The word had been said and he'd heard it and couldn't pretend he hadn't. He felt suddenly so agitated that he couldn't sit still. He jumped up from the table, knocking it with his need and scattering some of the heaps of cards.' pp161 Roger begins the story as a kind of innocent in this. He is still a child, happy to talk baby talk or Woddy as they call it with his sisters at moments of stress and to be glad to take refuge in his parent's bed, but he is also on the cusp of adolescence. Once he comes to understand her strangeness he thinks that what he feels for her is pity for her difference and situation but then: 'Their hands met and held in the darkness.
Roger closed his eyes and realised for the first time that what he felt for Melusine he had never felt before. he'd thought he just wanted to help her but now he acknowledged that that was only part of it. pp167