Other Words for Smoke, Sarah Maria Griffin (Greenwillow 978-0-06-240891-4, $17.99, 331pp, hc) March 2019.
Let’s talk about a very creepy book, shall we? Other Words for Smoke by Irish author Sarah Maria Griffin is about witches, a haunted house, a mysterious “other” world, Ireland’s history of abusing unwed mothers, and the seductive allure of power. It’s also about a cat and an owl who are most certainly not just a cat and an owl, a set of twins suffering the break-up of their parents’ marriage, a teenage girl who feeds something that lives in the walls, and a house fire. Oh – and there is also a tooth forcibly removed from someone’s mouth through really dark magic. That’s a pretty memorable part of the narrative, for sure. So yes, let’s talk about this very creepy book!
Overall, Other Words for Smoke is about several teenagers whose interaction with a certain house and its not-of-this-world occupants crosses generations. Rossa and Mae come to the house because their parents need a place to dump them while they work on their ailing marriage. The twins are deposited with their great Aunt Rita for a “vacation,” and are subsequently introduced to Bevan, a couple of years older than their 14, beautiful and tempting and living with Rita in a surrogate mother/daughter relationship. The twins quickly notice that the house is odd: hallways might be longer or shorter depending on when you walk them, and doorways are not quite where they should be. Rita gives tarot card readings and soon engages Mae in learning the craft. As for Bevan, she has a secret friend who lives in the walls. Unfortunately the friend is a lot hungrier now that the twins have arrived and Bevan can’t satisfy “Sweet James” with the bones of dead animals anymore; it’s going to take something fresher, something bloodier.
The tooth removal is coming.
As the vacation ends and the whole weird experience of whatever happened at Aunt Rita’s fades into the background, Mae and Rossa are left with memories they cannot shake. Things happened there (the tooth!) that cannot be denied, but exactly what those things were or why it all occurred is still a mystery. For Bevan there are no questions; she knows what she saw, what she did, where she traveled, and who she met. She also knows about Audrey, Rita’s long lost friend who handles Sweet James in a way that Bevan could not. Audrey, who is still a teenager decades after she vanished, has commanded that Bevan hold herself in check and Bevan is trying, trying, trying not to want so much, not to need so much. But it’s so hard to not have what James promised her and so easy to forget the cost of all that having.
Bevan is not going to make it.
Three years later, as their family unravels for good, the twins return for the summer again. Now they are 17 and there is an uneasiness between them; a separation between the brother and sister who always seemed inseparable. Bevan sees weakness and is tempted. Sweet James is free of Audrey and returns as well with his promises and demands for greater sacrifice. Exhausted from all the discord at home, Rossa is so easy to entice, so easy to manipulate. Mae isn’t paying attention; no one is paying attention.
Griffin does a great job of building the tension among the three teenagers and Sweet James is right out of a gothic evil animal novel. (Who knew owls could be this horrifying?) Even better than a manipulative owl (and cat), Griffin lightly weaves the story of Rita and Audrey’s teen years into the broader narrative, which is where the true horror of the book comes through: the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Many American teens will likely be unaware of these bastions of cruelty, but Griffin grafts the history cleanly to the story, and as she ties everything together, she reveals how good and evil are never obvious and Rossa and Mae’s choices are as complicated as the motives of those who surround them.
Other Words for Smoke is steeped in atmosphere, history, horror, and mystery. Griffin brings a writerly skill set to the table that sets her apart from many other authors; she isn’t afraid to go for the throat and her words and characters will stay with you for a long time.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the August 2019 issue of Locus.
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