Other Words For Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin book review

There’s something in the walls in superb Irish horror story Other Words For Smoke

There’s something lurking behind the wallpaper at the house on Iona Crescent. Something dark. Something hungry. When fourteen-year-old twins Mae and Rossa first go to stay with their great-aunt Rita and her gorgeous (but terrifying) ward Bevan, they’re drawn into a web of magic and heartbreak. And though they thought they’d escaped, it comes back to haunt them again three summers later, as the darkness really sinks its claws in.

If Sarah Maria Griffin’s previous novel, Spare And Found Parts, was a smart, futuristic take on Frankenstein, Other Words For Smoke could be read as a witchy feminist response to Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. They share a kind of delirious creepiness, both evoking the wooziness of long, hot summer holidays.

But while Garner’s story drew on Welsh mythology, Griffin’s is completely Irish. The grim spectre of the Magdalene laundries looms large, a reminder that not all evil is supernatural in origin – though the supernatural threat is also very real. Griffin lays bare the stakes of her story in its opening sentences, but knowing how it ends doesn’t make what unfolds any less nightmarish.

Just like in Spare And Found Parts, though, there’s real warmth and optimism to be found amidst the horror. No matter how dark things get, there’s always hope. Griffin writes with clear affection for her characters, and her playful structuring – the novel skips around in time, between perspectives, and between narrative modes, while using footnotes for context and punchlines – makes her writing feel effortless, despite the obvious control she exercises over every word. Reading it is a bit like falling under a spell, or falling in love: it’s beautiful, scary, and utterly impossible to resist.