A bit late for F/F February, but I did finally read Other Words for Smoke. I bought it some time during the summer, where bookshops were no longer in lockdown and you could actually browse. Did not expect it to be in YA (all I knew about it was from following the author on twitter), but it was a gorgeous little book with neon pink edges, and I absolutely loved it. Then it stayed on my shelves for months…
When the house at the end of the lane burned down, none of the townspeople knew what happened. A tragedy, they called it. Poor Rita Frost and her ward, Bevan, lost to the flames. Only Mae and Rossa, Rita’s niece and nephew, know what happened that fateful summer.
Only they know about the owl in the wall, the uncanny cat, the dark powers that devour love and fear. Only they know about the trials of loving someone who longs for power, for freedom, for magic. Only they know what brought the house tumbling down around them. And they’ll never, ever breathe a word.
I finally unearthed this book from my TBR, and the first thing I’ll say is, it’s so satisfying, aesthetically? The neon pink edges, the foil leaves, the grey artwork on some of the pages… and to top it all the pink edges meant the pages kinda stuck together and made the most satisfying noise when pulling them apart. Thoroughly happy I got a physical copy!
Second thing is, I wasn’t really expecting this to be horror? Or to be set in Dublin (well, in a tiny village at the foot of the Dublin mountains). It worked very well, it landed where it needed to land, but what worked the best for me was that the setting was so familiar, and so authentic. And the story, while focusing on two very modern children, also ties into the reality of Magdalen laundries and how that is still a very current topic here. I thought it was very good to have Rita as an older character, and to see her point of view as well, and Audrey’s, and to learn about what happened to their friend. Without spoiling too much, it was fitting that such a horrible and traumatic event is what triggers the horror aspects of the novel.
As for the horror itself, it’s not really my thing normally, so I’m not a good judge of it. But it was believable in that it resonates with realistic situations like abusive relationships or addiction, where Sweet James is truly bad for Bevan but she does not necessarily see it, and gets carried away.
It was very much F/F, as advertised (by friends. It’s not really advertised as such), but not in a way you’d normally see it. Mae sure has a crush on Bevan, and that’s pretty central to her character arc, but for me the most important relationship of the book, as understated as it was, was the relationship between Audrey and Rita. I say understated, but I think subtle would be a better term. And I loved that Audrey makes a point of calling herself queer and explaining there was no space for her when she left (Ireland/Dublin). But it’s not a definitive statement either, as we see the possibilities for all the queer characters in the future – both Rita and Audrey, but also Mae. So it is both a very modern book, and one that is deeply entrenched in its history, and deeply Irish. In all the best ways possible.
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