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…
Huge thank you to Titan Books for sending me an early review copy.
So I’m currently trying to work out how to write this entire review without gushing or spoiling everything… here we go!
I’ve been so excited to read Other Words for Smoke; I loved Sarah’s first novel, Spare and Found Parts, and since hearing her speak about OWFS at an event last year and reading a sampler, I’ve been hooked. Obviously I went into this book with high expectations but Sarah’s gorgeous writing surpassed them all.
You scream. You paid for this, this was supposed to be over. His influence cleansed from you, cauterised from your palms, then wept out like a broken heart.
Other Words for Smoke follows twins Mae and Rossa over two summers in which they visit their Great Aunt Rita, who lives with her teenage ward Bevan. We get third person chapters from Mae and Rossa, and second person chapters from Bevan, which I loved as this really allowed us to see into her head and to empathise with her even when she may have been making bad decisions. During their first visit when they are fourteen, Mae and Rossa discover that Rita’s house is hiding so many secrets, and they’re confronted with these again on their second visit, when the twins are seventeen.
(You know how to mend a broken heart. You keep all your fairy tales to yourself in the future so nobody thinks you’re crazy, or breaks up with you, then unbreaks up with you so you end up breaking up with them. You stay busy. You don’t try to touch the wall.)
As I said, it’s quite hard to really delve into this book without spoiling a lot, but overall, Other Words for Smoke is a story about queer witches in a small Irish town, with themes of obsession, love, fear and creatures that hunger. The UK edition starts with a letter from Sarah, which mentions that it is a book about Ireland, and it’d hard not to see the way that Rita’s house is representative of the issues that the people of Ireland have faced. With the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment still fresh, and even horrors from a few decades back such as the Magdalene laundries, a house possessed by demons that feed off the strongest of emotions couldn’t have been a better metaphor, and the fact that some characters are affected by these very real horrors make the book even more poignant.
Did nobody hear you scream? You dry your hands and close your eyes. What is it about this house that eats cries for help?
For me, Sweet James was also a huge representation of toxic relationships, with him forcing Bevan to commit atrocities and cause pain in exchange for love and freedom, whilst never really giving her much and always asking for more. Despite understanding that James is something monstrous, she still constantly seeks approval from him. Her character was so interesting to read and I’m so glad her chapters were written in second person, as the way she thought about James and what she’d do to please him truly was heartbreaking. The book is full of themes of obsession; from the obvious one of Bevan’s obsession with James and what he shows her, Mae’s obsessions with Bevan, to James’s and Rosa’s and Rita’s. It’s representative of how dangerous obsessions really can be, of what can come from what you’ll do for the object of your obsession.
It’s not like he has the same gaze as a human. It’s not like he’s a man. He’s a something else. A monster, you think. A monster, you are sure.
There aren’t really any characters ‘outside’ of the house, apart from Gus, a boy who Bevan has a couple of interactions with. However, I felt it important to point out how all of the women – Bevan, Mae, Rita and others from the past – understood the dangers that the house posed, but men either wouldn’t understand or weren’t to be told. When Mae begins sitting in on Rita and Bevan’s tarot readings, she is told to keep this from Rossa for now, as she also is when discovering that Bobby the cat is more than he first seems. Within the house, it’s like it’s almost universally known that men will not understand what the women of the house must endure. During the twins second summer in the house, Mae is wise to its tricks and won’t fall for them, whereas Rossa still cannot fully comprehend the dangers even after his encounter with them three years previously, as though he thinks it can’t possibly happen again. Again, this just really linked back to the other themes for me.
“Crazy,” Gus sneered. “No wonder you have no friends. Making up stupid stories. Do you think that makes you more interesting? An owl in the wall. Christ.”
Crazy, a bullet.
Besides all this huge narrative analysis I’ve found myself in, Other Words For Smoke stands on its own as a mindblowing novel. Regardless of if you want to look deeply into its themes and origins or not, either way it’s a captivating story of witchcraft, magic, first loves, sibling dynamics, found families and sisterhood. Sarah has such a poetic, fluid writing style, and as with Spare and Found Parts, the changes between points of view worked so well. I know some people dislike second person (it’s actually my favourite!) but I don’t think Bevan’s chapters could’ve been written any differently – don’t let it put you off!
If this essay length review didn’t tell you this already, I adored this book; I’ve already read it twice and it isn’t even out in the UK yet.
Other Words For Smoke is released on the 2nd April from Titan Books.
Some days the hearth in her burns a little too bright, but she knows that heat could give her energy and protection, if she let it. Today she feels more like a building full of beasts and flame than a woman, but the elements would settle. They would not make ash of her.