Smith (Red Square, 1992, etc.) not only sets his exuberant, sly new novel in Victorian England but goes Victorian novelists one better, conjuring up a plot device at the heart of this mystery that Dickens would envy. Set in the town of Wigan, in Lancashire, this latest from Smith doesn't simply evoke the past, it plunges us into the gritty reality of a mid-19th-century community dominated by its vast coal mines. We learn an extraordinary amount about the brutal world of mining, but more importantly we come to feel a part of Wigan, so actual do its streets and inhabitants seem. It's this dense world that lingers: The plot is, with its one exception, a rather unsurprising mystery. Jonathan Blair, a mining engineer and explorer who has returned from Africa under a cloud (there are rumors of fraud), is summoned by his erstwhile employer, Bishop Hannay (who owns much of Wigan, including its largest coal mine), and set on the trail of the fianceÇ of Hannay's daughter Charlotte. John Maypole, a fervent young minister, had disappeared on the same day that an explosion in Hannay's mine killed 75 men. Charlotte, bright, acerbic, radical, takes an immediate dislike to the laconic Blair. He, in turn, is fascinated by Rose Molyneux, a remarkably independent ``pit girl'' (women employed by the mines, pit girls are notorious in England for their clothes—they wear trousers under vestigial dresses—and the supposed easiness of their morals). Blair is menaced by two miners, blithe sadists determined to stop his inquiry. A dogged, shrewd investigator, he takes a huge amount of punishment before uncovering Maypole's sad fate. And, in the midst of a dangerous affair with Rose, he discovers the remarkable scheme linking her and Charlotte Hannay. It's a dazzling moment. Blair, Rose, and Smith's other characters are wonderful creations, robust and distinctive. The crimes here are unremarkable, but the world evoked is memorable, glowing with life. (Author tour)

Pub Date: May 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-42661-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1996

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An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.


A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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