BOOK REVIEW The Servants

By MM Smith. Strange goings on upstairs and downstairs in seaside chiller

Author: MM Smith

Publisher: HarperCollins

240 pages • £12.99

ISBN: 978-0-007-26193-2

Rating:

Like most 11-year-olds, Mark just wants to learn how to skateboard, play videogames and drink fizzy pop. Unlike most 11-year-olds, he doesn’t spend his time kicking around train tracks hoping to chance upon crumpled and discarded grot mags, but perhaps that’s because his mother is ill. Mark, mum and his new stepfather have moved to Brighton, once a happy place, but now a prison for our young hero.

Left to aimlessly wander the grey winter streets, it’s not long before Mark meets an elderly lady in the flat below, who teaches him about the days when servants would maintain the house, moving silently and ghost-like so they wouldn’t be spotted by their masters. As Mark’s mother gets sicker and sicker, it becomes apparent that perhaps the servants haven’t left at all…

Initially reading like a modern interpretation of Tom’s Midnight Garden (only with a surprising number of f-bombs) it eventually becomes clear that Michael Marshall Smith’s novel deals more in allegory than literal time travel or the supernatural. The titular servants are rarely seen, but their presence is always felt, as the house crumbles into decay. It takes a while to get going, telling the story of a parent’s illness through the mask of a child’s imagination is not a particularly original conceit, and at first the characters seem roughly sketched and obvious.

But perhaps appropriately for a book about the passages that lie beneath the areas we show to visitors, there’s more below the surface, and what ultimately emerges is a touchingly sweet book that refuses to give any easy answers or cheap twists. A perfect rainy-day read that’ll leave you with a lump in your throat.

Jon Hamblin

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