I honestly do not know where to start reviewing this book. Other Words for Smoke is absolute witchy perfection. It is one of my favourite reads of this year, so I am doomed to do an abysmal job of reviewing it. Bear with me whilst I ramble.
Other Words for Smoke begins at the end:
“Nobody knew what made the three of them from Iona Crescent up and walk out of the world. The rumours were different, depending on who you spoke to. “
We meet Mae and Rossa sat by the side of the burning house, refusing to talk about what has happened. We know that whatever it is, it is big. It is two summers since they first went to stay with Aunt Rita and Bevan, and this is where their story, the story of what happened, starts. It is told over these two summers and separated by a series of stunning vignettes, which gives us a much needed break from the intensity of those summers, as well as giving an insight into the different characters and their stories, both past and present.
The twins are in their early teens that first summer, struggling to find their identities, growing apart from each other and becoming their own people. Their parents’ marriage is crumbling, so they’re sent to stay with their Aunt Rita to give them space. So far, so very normal. And then we meet Bevan.
Bevan is “a quiet girl with something hard in her eyes”. We first see her buying bones whilst flirting outrageously with the boy who works at the butchers. She tells him she’s buying the bones to make soup for Rita, but when she gets home she starts feeding them to something in the wall – “It eats the bone and his voice says, more“. And that’s when you know this is no ordinary book. Other Words for Smoke is something else. There are times when this book is so creepy and so gross you want to look away, but you can’t. It’s too compelling.
There is a freaking wallpaper owl beast for heaven’s sake (there is also a talking cat, but that somehow seems less eventful after the wall-owl). Sweet James (oh yes, he has a name) just casually hangs out in a room, encouraging a teenage girl to do increasingly weird things. He is vicious to Bevan, but she keeps going back for more (we’ve all been there Bevan, no judgement here). Sweet James senses the new children in the house and he wants them. Pieces of them. He shows Bevan another world, another life, one that can be hers if she only does as he asks. Sweet James has given Bevan a glimpse of something she can only dream of, and she wants it, badly. In return Sweet James doesn’t want much, just increasingly darker sacrifices, bit of the children: “bring me something better”… “bring me blood”. Bevan wants to please him, but she doesn’t want to disappoint Rita. Her inner conflict is a big, and interesting, part of this book.
Oblivious to Bevan’s creepy relationship with an owl in a wall, Mae becomes obsessed with her. She has the biggest crush on Bevan. It is her first crush and it comes with all of the big, raw, emotions. Mae’s feelings physically pained me. She asks Bobby “is she nice? Bevan?” and he replies truthfully:
“No, she’s not, but that won’t stop how you feel”.
Reader, that line just about broke me. Bobby is surprisingly wise for a talking cat. Mae is the most adorable young girl head over heels in love with someone who barely acknowledges her existence. Anyone who has had a crush on someone who didn’t reciprocate will find themselves in this book, in the most painful way.
There is also a lot of focus on the Tarot in this book, and I loved it. Rita uses her cards as “a language”, a way of “seeing and feeling the secrets of the world”, and she wants to introduce Mae to this. The imagery of the cards runs throughout the book. If you’re familiar with the tarot, then the cards that keep appearing will add another dimension to what you’re reading. If you’re not, then it’s worth doing a little reading about the cards that appear in this book. I’m not going to spoil that for you here, but it’s brilliant. Rita and Bevan disagree on the Tarot at times, and this adds an interesting perspective to their relationship. It also gives us insight into some of Rita’s past. We don’t find out a lot of it early on, but we know that she has seen great sadness in her life:
“For a long time all I could read in the cards was tragedy. This house was a house of swords: I drew the Devil again and again.”
If talking cats, unrequited crushes, witchcraft, tarot cards, and wallpaper owls demanding human sacrifices aren’t enough for you, this book also has all of the secrets, awkward family dynamics, and tension you could want. Rita and Bobby know about Sweet James, and they’re attempting to keep him at bay. But, it seems Rita knows a little of what is to come as she keeps repeating “It is happening again”, although it is some time before we know what “It” is, and when it comes you will not be ready for it. I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not ready for it. The twists in this book are exceptional.
This whole book is exceptional. Other Words for Smoke is a story about magic, the power of fear over love, the intensity of emotions, and the absolute headfuck that is being a teenager (and a bunch of other really clever stuff besides). The writing is beautiful. Sarah has such a unique style and is an absolute master at storytelling. Please trust me when I say read this book. Read it and then give it to all of your friends to read.