‘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 knew 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 was more than a cat, 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…’
In complete honesty, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Other Words For Smoke when I first began the book. The story begins at the end, before jumping backwards in time a number of years. The narrative flips between third person, and a narrator that puts you in Bevan’s place, not just her telling you how things affected her, but the narrator talking to you as if you are Bevan. Along with this, there are a number of big, fantastical things that are given little explanation, it was all a little confusing.
However, after a short while I began to understand that this was part of the point, that you as the reader are never quite meant to feel comfortable in this strange world of twisted logic and bizarre magic. Even though the book tells the story through three viewpoints, Bevan, Rossa, and Mae, it’s really about Mae, and the mixture of understanding some things whilst still being confused and unsettled mirror her experiences.
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In many ways, this confused state, this partial understanding of the world around you, is a perfect metaphor for the journey that Mae and Rossa are going through over the course of the three years the book is set; not their journey into magic and other worlds, but their journey from teens to adults. The book is about growing up, and the two teens go from naive youngsters to young adults who have discovered so much more about themselves, and have had to live through the awfulness of their fractured and hateful home lives.
We get to see Mae go from a shy young girl hidden away in her games and just discovering her sexuality to a young woman who is embracing who she is, the powers that she is starting to tap into, and having to come to terms with how her first love will affect her for the rest of her life. Rossa changes from a boy closed off from the fantastical world around him, content to shy away from the world in his drawings, to a man with a plan, who knows what he wants from life and isn’t afraid to grasp for it, who opens himself up to the magic around him.
Whilst the book is about growing up and discovering the person that you’re going to be, it’s also about addiction. Bevan is addicted to the powers that the mysterious creature in the walls of the house, Sweet James, is willing to give her. At first glance it simply appears that she’s a character who is craving power, and potentially just a very nasty person, but as the book progresses and we see Bevan without the influence of Sweet James for a while it becomes clear that she’s a victim. She discovers this new world full of wonder and wants to learn more about it, as most people would, but it’s twisted for her by the parasitic creature that is luring her in. She becomes a junkie to the powers on offer, willing to lie, steal, hurt, and even kill if need be to get more.
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What stands out most about the book however, is how it’s written. Not just jumping through different perspectives, narrative styles, and time periods, the book has a lyrical, almost poetic quality to it. It’s clear that Sarah Maria Griffin spent a great deal of time weaving ideas and themes throughout the tapestry of the book in a way that a lot of writers don’t, and the end result is a book that feels infinitely more than just the sum of its parts. Even come the end there’s mystery and wonder that is never answered, a world left unexplored, and relationships and motivations only partially hinted at. This might bother some, but it feels more real than most books. After all, in life you rarely get all the answers.
Sarah Maria Griffin has crafted a living, breathing world around one house and a handful of characters, a universe that is barely dipped into. She could come back to this time and time again, exploring the wondrous places that she has made, or simply leave it be, forever a mystery. Either scenario would make me happy, as I’d love to spend more time in this universe, but would also be more than happy to let my own imagination fill in these blanks.
It’s not often I finish a book and find myself immediately wanting to return to it and read it again straight away, but Other Words For Smoke had this effect on me. I want to go back and see those connections that I only realised were there at the end, to use the knowledge I gained later on to see if there is more there to be learned. A stunning example of not just a novel, but a work of art that is sure to stick with the reader long after the final page has been read.