by M. M. Smith

Economy of style. In the hands of a consummate wordsmith the result can be a deceptively accessible novel that comes loaded with nuance. When employed by a literary dilettante, everything can go My First Reader far too quickly. Thankfully, for Michael Marshal Smith, and for us as readers, his skill definitely lies in the former camp. He’s temporarily turned his back upon conspiracy delving, clone farming and black market memory trading and dons his “I heart E. E. Nesbit” T-shirt for this latest book.

      The Servants is a bitter sweet, coming of age tale that sees the protagonist – a teenage boy called Mark – caught in a limbo caused by his mother’s illness. Forced to relocate to Brighton he falls through the emotional gaps created by an uncaring step father, and only finds solace on the promenade with his skateboard. It’s a claustrophobic relationship, with the spectre of terminal illness hovering on the peripheries, which only becomes lightened when Mark encounters the old lady who lives in the basement flat. Her world is already so distanced from his that he finds some comfort here. But when she literally unlocks a door to the realm of the Victorian servants, everything takes an Upstairs Downstairs turn into the Twilight Zone.

      There’s a tension that Smith expertly knits into the fabric of this tale. On the surface there’s the three way pull of the mother, step father and escapist world of the old lady. But it’s the house, and the local itself, that creates a fourth gravity well of melancholic nostalgia. There’s something about Brighton off-season that wonderfully matches the mood of this book, but if there’s a solitary criticism that can be levelled at The Servants, it lies within this setting. The pace is sedate to say the least, and while this does evoke a compelling sense of otherness it comes at the cost of narrative drive. There’s just a bit too much of Mark brooding on the waterfront and not enough of the Victorian ghost world. So, visceral scares you won’t find. A charming, sombre tale of two brilliantly realised worlds you will.