Precious Thing, the debut novel from Colette Mcbeth, an ex-news correspondent and graduate of the Faber Academy Writing course, whose alumni also incl...morePrecious Thing, the debut novel from Colette Mcbeth, an ex-news correspondent and graduate of the Faber Academy Writing course, whose alumni also include S. J. Watson and Rachel Joyce, is a psychological thriller about the intense friendships that teenage girls can form and what can happen when the pressures of adult life intrude.
When Rachel, chubby and awkward, started a new school and was immediately taken under the wing of the ice-cool and unattainable Clara, the pair became inseparable. Fast forward ten years and Rachel has become a successful TV reporter with a loving boyfriend, Clara has spent seven years undergoing psychiatric treatment and travelling, and the friendship has altered irreparably. Invited back to Brighton to celebrate Clara's birthday, Rachel is irritated but not unduly worried when her friend doesn't show up - until she is asked to cover a story about a missing woman and discovers that it's Clara.
Structured as a letter from Rachel to her errant friend, Precious Thing charts the investigation into Clara's disappearance and looks back at the disintegration of the friendship that had once seemed indestructible...
Jenn and Greg have been to the same villa on Mallorca for years but this year Emma, Greg's 15 year old daughter, is coming for a week with her boyfrie...moreJenn and Greg have been to the same villa on Mallorca for years but this year Emma, Greg's 15 year old daughter, is coming for a week with her boyfriend. Jenn has vague memories of Nathan as a quiet and sulky teenager, far removed from the "shockingly pretty" boy who arrives with Emma one afternoon. When he makes his attraction to Jenn clear, she finds it impossible to resist, especially as Greg is being increasingly distant, spending much of his time on the phone to his colleagues. The consequences of letting desire overcome restraint mean that none of their lives will be quite the same again.
Helen Walsh has a real talent for creating a sense of place - the bustling markets, the busy tavernas, the secluded coves, these are all brought alive by lyrical prose. The heavy heat of the island in summer is everywhere in the novel, which seems to make Jenn's actions almost inevitable...
The Miracle Inspector is a grim, dystopian tale of the near future. The main characters, Lucas and Angela, are a young couple living in a London almos...moreThe Miracle Inspector is a grim, dystopian tale of the near future. The main characters, Lucas and Angela, are a young couple living in a London almost entirely cut off from the outside world, ruled by a military dictatorship and a complex bureaucracy. Following some kind of unexplained disaster, Britain has been partitioned into separate regions. The citizens of London long to escape to Cornwall or Wales, where rumours speak of freedom, beaches and sunshine, but no one really knows what life is like outside the city. Author Helen Smith has worked as a writing mentor for the refugee agency ‘Freedom from Torture’, and has described The Miracle Inspector in part as an exploration of the experiences of exiles forced to enter a world where nothing makes sense to them (http://goo.gl/SP20s).
There is dark humour in the novel, particularly in Smith’s descriptions of bureaucracy. London’s government has permitted citizens to draw up their own constitution, and a peculiar series of rules must now be rigorously enforced by an army of overworked officials. Lucas himself is the Inspector of Miracles, upholding the constitutional right to believe by checking reports of apparitions, healings and rumours of “the face of the Virgin Mary in a flan” (p19). I would have loved to discover more about how the world reached this point and how this constitution was created – a prequel could be really interesting.
Lucas’s colleagues also enforce more unpleasant regulations. Obsessed by the fear of terrorists, paedophiles and strange men, London has closed all schools and banned all women and children from public spaces. Women are forbidden to work outside the home, and men older than 35 disappear without explanation. Smith shows a few hints of rebellion against these restrictions, including secret love letters and underground poetry clubs, but these moments end in tragedy and disaster.
One of the most powerful themes of the book is Smith’s depiction of what her characters, growing up in this environment, consider to be common sense. Lucas himself sees the restrictions of London life as natural and necessary, and is taken aback in one early scene by the possibility that his wife might be capable of thinking for herself: “if he could prise open her head with a penknife and put a straw in her brain and siphon out the thoughts… he would have been surprised to uncover anything more profound than the expression of simple wants, needs and instructions to herself” (p5). A few weeks after reading the book, it’s these chilling ways of thinking that have lingered with me most.
Reading The Miracle Inspector can be a rather dispiriting experience, filled with unsympathetic characters trapped in desperate situations. There are no heroes in this world, and even the most admirable characters – like Jesmond, the illegal poet – are deeply flawed. Smith is showing us a world in which prejudice and suspicion are completely normal and nonconformity can be fatal, and she chooses to focus on the small details and everyday crises of lives lived in constant fear of arrest and disappearance. If you like your fiction bleak but thought-provoking, you should give this book a try.(less)