A.L. Kennedy (Canongate, £9.99)

It may have been inspired by present-day refugee crises, but A.L. Kennedy’s latest book has a timelessness to it, the stately grace and emotional directness of a classic fable. The little snake of the title is far more than just any old snake. Introducing himself as Lanmo, he shines a brilliant gold and possesses magical powers, being able to talk, change his shape and size and travel across the world at lightning speed. Most significantly, he brings death. Humans who are lucky enough not to be killed by other humans will one day find themselves encountering a golden, and actually quite charming and eloquent, snake who will ease their journey into the next world. Lanmo has been doing this for centuries.

All this starts to change when Lanmo comes to an unnamed city and meets a girl called Mary. The rulers of this city, Kennedy tells us, don’t really like other people all that much. From their large and luxurious homes, they look down on cramped houses with leaky pipes and tiny gardens. Visitors remark that, with all its nooks and ledges, it would be a better city for birds than people. In the garden of one of these cramped houses, where Mary lives with her parents, she comes across Lanmo and the pair strike up a rapport. The snake lies on her pillow as she falls asleep at night and sends her pleasant dreams. Disguised as a brooch or bangle, he goes out with Mary to learn about the kind of life she leads, watching over his new friend when he should probably be zipping around the world shortening lifespans.

It’s when she takes him to school and he sees her being humiliated by some of the other girls, that Lanmo notices a change in himself. He feels anger, which isn’t especially new, but for the first time he also feels guilt, for not protecting her. Despite having lived among humans for centuries, and sharing the intimacy of their final moments, until now Lanmo has never been interested in what makes them tick. Mary is really getting under his scales, and their friendship has awoken in the old reptile a curiosity about love. But as time goes on, and Lanmo is away for years at a stretch doing his job, Mary’s city is becoming a grimmer, even less welcoming place. People are starting to leave, in fear of their lives. She and her new boyfriend, Paul, could really do with the help of a magical snake.

Kennedy has woven some lovely ideas (among them the notion that everything a snake needs to know is written on the inside of its shell, which it reads before hatching) into a celebration of love and a plea for compassion of which she can be justly proud. Written with a childlike sense of wonder and fairness but a grown-up’s understanding of the harsh lives endured by the less fortunate, The Little Snake enchants and touches deeply, ensuring that only the hardest-hearted will be left with dry eyes by the final page.