Dazzling wordplay and abundant imagination invigorate a tale of lives interrupted.
Highly touted Brit Smith (Hotel World, 2002, etc.) is an original whose choppy perspectives and internal riffs take some getting used to. This third novel, her second to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, reveals its hand slowly as it switches among Alhambra, a recurrent character, and the separate trajectories of the Smart family, on holiday in Norfolk. Astrid, 12 and bored, sees life at one remove through the viewfinder of her camera; her brother Magnus, implicated in a bullying that led to a school mate’s death, is borderline suicidal; their mother, Eve, a writer, is blocked; and their stepfather, Michael, an academic, is a compulsive philanderer. Each of these lives is thrown onto a different track by the arrival of mysterious, mercurial Amber, who is probably not telling the truth when she says she became a vagrant after killing a child in a car accident. Amber is lovely, fierce and unpredictable. She throws Astrid’s camera away and seduces Magnus. Indifferent towards Michael’s physical charms, she reveals to him the waning of his sexual allure. After Amber kisses Eve, she is thrown out of the house, and takes her revenge by stripping the Smarts’ London home of everything, including faucets and doorknobs. But even bigger things are ahead. Inventive, intelligent, playful, Smith has a pin-sharp ear for her characters’ voices. Underneath the glittering surface lies a darker debate about truth and consequences, as well as a magnificent history of the cinema.
It’s not so much about the story as it is about the virtuosity of the telling.