Other Words for Smoke
by Sarah Maria Griffin
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…
It took me longer than expected to finish this book, but it was worth it.
Other Words For Smoke is a complicated novel, focused mainly on the experiences of twins Mae and Rossa when they go to stay with their aunt Rita. It’s a story full of magic, but not necessarily the good kind.
This book offers a different approach to magic. How it can be twisted and used, not for what one would strictly call evil, but still, for selfish reasons. I feel the magic is a moral reflection of the history of Ireland, as well as religion, that haunts so many of the characters and places in this book.
While Magdalene Laundries aren’t an area I’m an expert on, the brief flashes we see of the fear of the Laundries, from the closet overflowing with statues of Mary to the cut in the world where a horrendous loss happened due to the Laundries, it becomes clear that the magic has become twisted because of history. It’s fascinating, and terrifying, because it’s so based on real life horror.
The writing is equally as twisted. Griffin includes footnotes where other characters interject with their own conversations and thoughts, and it becomes confusing. But this all feels intentional. By the end, everything I had read before made complete sense, as confusing as it had been in the moment. I could recall footnotes from a hundred pages before with complete clarity.
The voice jumps between second and third person, depending on which character is the centre of the chapter, and I loved that. I’m a fan of second person narratives, and when it’s present, there’s a sense of a complete lack of control that really does reflect the way the character is being used and manipulated. There’s a fascinating sense of time and place. It almost loses itself, which feels intentional to go with the confusion of the narrative, so you get lost as much as the characters do.
Sarah Maria Griffin offers such a compelling look at family. Characters are offered the chance to leave things behind, and it challenges the classic ‘twin’ bond, and how everything comes down to choice: do you stick around for the shit, or leave, and risk losing your family? It’s about two kids who come from a broken home, and you see all of the relationships morph, breakdown, and build back up again, with different foundations.
The characters are so interesting, but by the end, the only one I was wholly emotionally invested in was Mae. Not out of a failing of the writer, but because Mae was written so well. She goes through incredible development, both emotionally and in her mental strength and capabilities. The other character’s have an embedded cynicism and selfishness that tries to suffocate Mae, too, but she overcomes it. I was attached to her and her story most of all, because it’s one I can relate to.
Other Words For Smoke is an incredible insight into a history of violence and magical beliefs tainted by the world’s evils, and how things aren’t always as black and white, ‘good and evil’, as they seem.
Content warnings: body horror and violence, mention of death of an infant, underage pregnancy, manipulation of a minor, divorce
If you like this review, you might like:
🍎In the Shadow of Spindrift House by Mira Grant
🍎I Call Upon Thee by Ania Ahlborn