When I first sat down to read the latest offering from James Smythe my passion for his writing took quite a knock. In this new novel, James is experimenting with differing styles, including a lack of speech marks. This is a pet peeve of mine unless it is used for narrative purposes and serves the story well. My faith in this aspiring author was solidified as James takes the reader on a tour de force through a myriad of feelings and emotions that truly benefit from the lack of dialogue punctuation. In fact, it is in this minute change where the novel holds its power.
Why mention this at the start of a review, as if it holds such import? Well, because this is James taking a chance. This is his most ambitious and personal novel to date. While The Machine holds very similar notions as Testimony and Explorer – in that it is dark and brooding – it explores other aspects of life and mind. I think it is well established that I am a fan of Mr Smythe and I will be nothing but honest about his work. The first fifty pages of The Machine was hard work. It is a slow opening that requires a lot from the reader. That isn’t to say it’s a bad opening, but James is vague about the plot and he lets it unfold organically as the pages turn.
At the root of this tale is a love story that is riddled with emotion and the macabre. James shows how far one would go to rebuild a love lost. Beth has lost her husband. His body is merely surviving, but his mind is lost to the Machine. James explores the idea that to remove the stress of trauma one needs to remove the memories and only the Machine can do that. Little is explained about the tech and development of the Machine, we know its function and we know what it looks like. It is a dominating, severe and surreal Machine that surely symbolises the void left in the patients who succumbed to its use.
To be honest, the entire feel of the novel has a tense and overbearing aspect to it. Beth is telling her story in the near future. Things have happened, waters have risen, teenagers are becoming more of a danger on the streets. Each page drips with suspense and nerves. Smythe fills the reader with the same burdens as his central character – when she is tense or confused, we are led to feel that way too. As the book progresses situations become even more dreamlike and manic, leading to a conclusion that leaves the reader reeling.
When starting the novel, and knowing that I’m not a fan of a lack of speech marks, I thought this would be the roadbump in my love of Smyths writing. When I put the book down I was left feeling confounded by it, I didn’t know what to feel. After a few days the memories of The Machine were burning and I found myself pondering certain aspects of it. It is only then when I realised that this is James’ best book yet.
Published by Blue Door. This books was kindly sent for review by the publisher.