Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin

I would like to thank Lydia from Titan for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Titan

Published – Out Now

Price - £8.99

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 ad 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 becomes 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…

Summer for many offers longer days, warmth and sunshine. As adults our enjoyment is fleeting as we are stuck in work but when growing up that luxurious summer break between the school and college holidays were endless. Summer offers teenagers a release and freedom that as we get older, we realise we won’t always have for long but also offers us that first opportunity to explore being adult in how we see and interact with the world. In this amazing novel Sarah Maria Griffin weaves a tale of growing up, magic Ireland’s still very recent social history that creates one of the best coming of age fantasies I’ve read.

We are very clearly told at the beginning that Mae and her twin brother Rossa are the only survivors of a housefire that resulted in the disappearance of their fortune telling aunt Rita and her ward Bevan. In the aftermath no one asks what the twins saw. We then flash back to their first encounter when 14-year-old Mae and her brother arrive (or are more accurately dropped off) as their parents try to address some personal issues. Their chain-smoking very relaxed Aunt is in contrast with the very driven sparling Bevan. Mae who is slowly realising her attraction to girls is entranced while Rossa is slightly apart from it all. But as the summer goes on they realise in this little Irish house is battle of two supernatural forces the sometimes cat-like talking Benny who is all about reassurance and love while upstairs hiding in the walls is Sweet James a magical entity presenting as a an owl hiding in the walls that wants to feed and offers Bevan an escape from her small Irish town to a land of endless rooms and adventures.

What really stands out is the quality of Griffin’s writing. As with her first novel which I enjoyed last year the futuristic Frankenstein tale of Spare and Found Parts this is lyrical storytelling that makes her voice unique as I feel I’m being actually told rather than reading a story. This novel perfectly captures the realisation that your parents are just people; that pain of unrequited love but also that joyous alive moment when every song makes you feel . She captures and explains the joy and pain of being a teenager well plus that discovery that everyone has their own motivations.  

Key to getting this across are the journey Griffin puts the characters through. Mae is our main lead as she seems to be able to access the same magic that Rita and Bevan can pull upon learning the power of the Tarot to foretell the future – a play along the three witches. She’s a fascinating lead grappling with finding her brother is now himself a teenager with all the sulking and moods that entails; working out how she too is becoming an adult woman alongside the realisation of her attraction to Bevan. As time passes, we see that change and she becomes much more adult in viewpoint and actions plus getting more comfortable in her own skin but realising that Bevan will never be right for her. Rossa in contrast is much more oblivious to the magical events under his feet but as he himself ages balance a love of art with desire to run from all the stresses back home and finds Bevan much more attractive despite the potential dangers, she places him in. Finally, in this trio is Bevan - the mysterious outsider living with Rita. What I liked about her is she is not a villain she is much more someone feeling trapped and powerless in her small town where being a girl is automatically seen as a weakness. Sweet James knows exactly her weak spots and later in the book we see how that presence can give her her own power and strength even if it makes her try to betray and abuse others and the reader may ultimately sympathise with her choices.

Underneath this dynamic of the three younger characters working out their relationships sits a deeper mystery surrounding Rita and her youth. Sweet James and Benny’s arrival around forty years ago is tied up into Rita’s own trio of friends when they were rebellious teenagers in the seventies. At this point we get much more insight into the horrors that the religious powers in Ireland could have on young single women. The tale touches on Ireland’s repressive abortion laws; attitudes to homosexuality and the brutal incarceration of women into the washing houses managed by nuns. A lot of this is explained subtly but it is an interesting contrast that while its clearly shown that Mae as a gay teen herself isn’t being automatically accepted by everyone that a mere forty years ago Ireland would have been even more brutal in its treatment of her. Its only later in the story we see Rita as a much more involved character than we realised previously, ]and that history explain her own eventual choices – and again it’s hard to judge her for later behaviour now the context is understood.

This is a powerful mix of magical forces battling for power, coming of age, love and social commentary. I fell deep into the novel this week and it can move from humour, joy to unsettling horror as the games of two summers race to their eventual fiery conclusion. I would strongly urge you to get this and Griffin is now definitely a writer in this genre to watch out for.


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