S. J. Bolton's heroine, Clara Benning, who is just shy of thirty, is a highly skilled veterinary surgeon who specializes in treating wildlife in a small English village. A terrible accident that occurred when she was a baby traumatized her to such an extent that she avoids social interaction whenever possible. "Awakening" is the story of Clara's reluctant emergence from the shadows.
Clara, the narrator, tells us how her "quiet, orderly life went into meltdown." One day, she gets a call from a frantic mother who tells her, "There's a snake in my baby's cot." Although Benning is a tough woman who does not frighten easily, she is understandably nervous when she races to the scene and sees an adder resting near the sleeping infant. "One lightning-charged strike and [the baby's] brief existence would be over." This dramatic scene sets the stage for a story that has elements of romance, mystery, zoology, and even a bit of the supernatural.
Dr. Benning is a remarkable woman who has steeled herself against feeling too deeply. She tends to the most ill-treated and badly injured animals with no obvious display of emotion. However, even the formidable Clara is badly shaken when someone starts using snakes to inflict harm on the town's residents. Where did these creatures come from and why would anyone deliberately use them as weapons? These crimes bring Clara into contact with Sean North , the "world's best known herpetologist," who is also a charismatic television personality, and Matt Hoare, an Assistant Chief Constable, both of whom are attracted to the prickly vet. When Clara is accused of committing the assaults herself, she turns sleuth, risking her life to solve a puzzle whose roots extend deep into the distant past.
Bolton's strong suit is setting and character development. She captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of a rural community in Dorset, where everyone is involved in everyone else's business. The author beautifully describes this scenic area of rustic beauty where Clara had hoped to bury herself in work and avoid close friendships. Most readers will feel an instant connection with this brilliant, dedicated, and deeply wounded individual who deals with the animals in her care skillfully and compassionately. She has her share of inner demons to contend with while she unravels the strange history of a charismatic preacher who, in spite of his unconventional ideas and practices, kept his congregants in thrall. The tortuous plot, alas, eventually becomes a bit murky, and Bolton introduces one too many implausible twists and turns in the book's final pages. However, "Awakening" has a great deal to recommend it, with its original, highly appealing protagonist, and its mesmerizing, if slight grisly, primer on the slithery world of snakes.