Review - Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin




Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin





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The house at the end of the lane burned down, and Rita Frost and her teenage ward, Bevan, were never seen again. The townspeople never learned what happened. Only Mae and her brother Rossa know the truth; they spent two summers with Rita and Bevan, two of the strangest summers of their lives... Because nothing in that house was as it seemed: a cat who was more than a cat, and a dark power called Sweet James that lurked behind the wallpaper, enthralling Bevan with whispers of neon magic and escape. And in the summer heat, Mae became equally as enthralled with Bevan. Desperately in the grips of first love, she'd give the other girl anything. A dangerous offer when all that Sweet James desired was a taste of new flesh...

Other Words for Smoke is haunting, horrific and beautiful. This book really got under my skin and left its mark on me. 

The story is told really well, and I was very impressed with the way it was paced. It is set over two summers, with the same group of characters coming together in the same house. In between the two parts are a series of vignettes of other summers, some from the past, some from the years between part one and part two, offering tantalising glimpses of lives lived beyond the pages.  

The characters are complex and interesting. They all have their secrets, which are slowly revealed in a fascinating, organic way. The time jump of three years works really well too. Each of the characters, particularly the twins, changes but this never feels forced or unrealistic, and I loved seeing how different the same group of people were over the space of a few years apart.

Technically, Sarah Maria Griffin does some very clever things with her writing that any writer should pay attention to. As she shifts point-of-view characters she also switches perspective and tense. Most of the characters' stories are told in simple past tense, third person perspective, something very familiar to anyone who reads novels. But then all of Bevan's pov sections are told in simple present tense, using a second person perspective. I have honestly never read anything like it. Erin Morgenstern uses second person for very small sections of The Night Circus, but there it feels like she's speaking directly to the reader, not one of her characters. I can't think of anything else I've seen that uses it like this.  

Grammar notes: 
Third person, in simple past tense is "Rita sat by the fireside,"
Second person, in simple present tense is "Your phone chimes in your back pocket. You ignore it."

There's a reason second person is rarely used in writing novels, and it's because it is incredibly hard to do well. Sarah Maria Griffin uses it superbly in Other Words for Smoke.  It creates a sense of unease, a feeling of wrongness that fits so brilliantly into the story.  The footnotes carry this through as well. They, too, are used in a way that I've never quite seen before.

The story is definitely one of unease and wrongness. There's something very off about the big house at the end of the lane, and although some of it is revealed early on, there's a real creeping horror as we learn more about what's going on and things deteriorate into more and more dangerous situations.  It's the first horror story I've read in a long while, and I loved it. It's one of those books where you can just ignore the technical cleverness, and get absorbed in the story, though those techniques will be working away on your subconscious.

There's also an excellent sub-plot, about a marriage breaking up and the impact is has on the family, that is told with subtlety and skill.

I also loved the setting, that blend of ancient magic and more modern horrors that is so Irish, and the fierce, determined women it has produced.

In conclusion, Other Words for Smoke is a beautiful, subtle horror story, told with consummate skill and style.  It tells its story using techniques I've not seen any other writer dare to try, and it works so well.

I'm giving it five moons.

🌕🌕🌕🌕🌕




Other Words for Smoke is published by Titan Books. It is available now. I was sent a copy in return for an honest review.

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