Review: The Servants

BServantsy M.M. Smith

HarperCollins, out now

Mark doesn’t want to be in Brighton – and certainly not with his new stepfather, David…

In our recent interview, Michael Marshall Smith talked about the importance of locale to a story, noting that this short novel could only be set in Brighton. Its evocation of the older buildings near the seafront, the decaying West Pier and the air of faded glory that surrounds part of the town – sorry, city – conjure up a place that feels like a cage to eleven-year-old Mark, particularly with the barriers that are imposed upon him by his stepfather.

This is a very small-scale story that feels very personal: the insights into the impotence of a youngster, as he either wilfully or accidentally misinterprets the actions of his elders, are as gripping as the thread regarding the secrets of the house in which he’s being forced to live. Just like the servants who worked there a century earlier, Mark has no option about being part of the household; his option is whether he chooses to partake in what goes on or deliberately tries to set himself apart. It is only when he opens a door and his lives touch theirs that understanding begins to dawn.

There are elements in this story that Smith returns to in his recent novel We Are Here – one particular description of the servants entering the “upstairs” part of the house without being noticed in particular is very evocative of that. Some of the descriptions may move you to tears, particularly when Mark realises exactly what is going on, and how his parents and stepfather figure in events; there’s also a wonderful sense of wish fulfilment about the tale – we all have to get our houses in order from time to time, but it doesn’t always sort out the problem.

Verdict: A beautifully-written tale.  8/10

Paul Simpson

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