Any woman whose behaviour fell outside the strict social norms of the time were in danger of being placed there. They were essentially treated as slave labour, and were more like prisons than rehabilitation centres, up to and including cruel and inhumane punishments. In terms of the scale and total legality of this misogynistic abuse, it is comparable to 15th century witch trials. It was as late as the 1990s, after the discovery of a mass burial site, that the truth was discovered and the laundries were closed.
The Magdalene laundries form the background of everything that happens in Other Words for Smoke. They’re the original sin that brought death into the world, still causing pain and trauma in their long shadow. None of the characters remain unaffected.
For the most part, the narrative shifts between the perspectives of Mae, Rossa, and Bevan. Their voices are distinct, and switching between the three never gets confusing (Bevan’s sections are intriguingly written in the second person). The book’s structure is semi-experimental, split into two sections, one for each summer the twins spend with Aunt Rita and Bevan, with a short ‘interval’ section in between. This does mean the plot is somewhat muddled, but Griffin makes up for it with atmosphere, character, and imagination.
The novel’s feminist themes are well-developed and timely. The majority of the characters are female, the only exceptions being a minor character called Gus, who exists as a foil for Bevan, and Rossa, who spends most of the book lost and faintly bemused in this world of women*. Rita, Bevan, and Mae are complex and interesting, and their inner conflicts and motivations are what drives the story forward.
One important aspect I haven’t mentioned so far is the setting. I was reminded of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining in the way Aunt Rita’s house is as much of a character as the people. Doors appear and disappear, corridors seem impossibly long, and rooms extend beyond the physical realm. The house’s shifting, changeable nature creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that befits the story being told.
Other Words for Smoke is only Sarah Maria Griffin’s second novel, but it shows a writer in control of her craft and with things to say. It was clearly a labour of love, and though flawed in some ways, has strong ideas at its core that make it a compelling read. With its blend of modern sensibilities and dark, fairytale-like tone, it’s a unique and fascinating book that I’d highly recommend.
* Though Sweet James has a male name, he can’t accurately be described as having a gender since he’s a supernatural entity from outside of time.
Review by Charlie Alcock