The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith takes place 30 years in the future. London is no longer a democracy, but run by dictators. This future is misogynistic and patriarchal. Women are not allowed to leave their homes (unless visiting female relatives), must wear a burqa when opening the door (or at any other point where they can be seen by people other than their husbands), are not allowed to work, have no rights or education and must ask their husbands for permission for anything they do. A woman is not allowed to use contraception or have a drink without her husband's permission.
There are no schools, children must always be kept inside, men are the only ones who venture past their front doors with any frequency. Once they reach a certain age, men are taken away and never seen again, while women are left to slowly fade away behind closed doors. All these changes were put into effect as men believed it would keep women and children safe from pedophiles, rapists and terrorists. Those three things pushed the city into ruin. There are no planes and the only transport is by car, ship or train. The only people who have cars work for the government- who also police all other means of travelling. Some try to leave, but the possibility of escape is infinitesimal and no one is ever heard of again. The best way to survive is to keep your head down and not ask questions. Create safety out of anonymity.
Lucas works for the Ministry. After the change, divisions were set up for everything, some vital, some pointless. This way they hope to monitor everything. So there are Inspectors of Cats, of Women, of Flowers and then there's Lucas- who is the Inspector of Miracles. Miracles in this future are just as unlikely as in our world, perhaps even more so, but in the new legislation it was decided that "the right to believe in miracles was enshrined in the constitution. And if a miracle is to be believed in collectively, then first it has to be found." So now Lucas spends his days being called out to various "miracles", whether they be claims of the new Messiah or the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast.
Every night he comes home to his young wife, Angela, and they sit in silence. Occasionally, words will pass between them, but for the most part, their marriage is just as bleak as the world they live in. They love each other, but their communication skills are almost non-existent. Lucas claims, "their relationship was also about the silences." He believes they reach each other on a deeper level. This may be true, but there's a constant tension between them. Words go unspoken. As Lucas puts it, "he was too preoccupied with keeping his thoughts hidden, to worry about hers." He constantly fears he'll say the wrong thing, so ends up never saying anything at all.
Lucas' thoughts are written in an odd, almost disjointed style, that perfectly emulates how thoughts occur in the mind. Some don't make sense, are completely irrelevant and utterly nonsensical. We basically get every thought that pops into his head, which is more realistic than the edited thoughts we normally read. It's a hard thing to make work, but it matches the humour and tone of the story very well. There's this odd mix of a very dark world and plot, combined with light and sometimes very British humour. A lot of the lines have very dead-span delivery. For instance, there's a situation where three men are drinking Ribena. Apparently, Ribena has been found to increase a man's life span and his libido. Lucas decides the men must do it for the latter reason, as men don't survive long enough to have to worry about the former.
Meanwhile, Angela is a very lonely and bored woman (for understandable reasons). She spends all day at home and sees and speaks to almost no one, except Lucas- who barely speaks to her at all. Then one day an old poet by the name of Jesmond drops off his life story in her hands. He's famous for his rebellious poems and songs and was close to Lucas' father. But, Lucas doesn't want to see him, so Angela is the one he always visits. When he drops off letters and poems from his past, she can't resist reading them.
But Angela wants to get away. When she brings it up with Lucas, he suggests Cornwall (because he thinks he should say something, but doesn't really expect her to say yes). She agrees and begs him to get them out, take them to Cornwall to start a family and live a free life. The situation in London may be dire, but the rest of the world is as it is now. For the most part, it is a free world (depending on where you are) and a utopia to Londoners. This is the basic plot of the story. Getting to Cornwall. Why Cornwall, because all Londoners want to go on holiday to Cornwall.
Lucas, on the other hand, begins fantasising about other men's wives. Almost every other thought is about sex, almost to a distracting level. There's no point to it and it doesn't go anywhere. After a while, it gets a little irritating, but the story constantly switches between him, Angela and Jesmond. At least for a little while. So it's bearable. As we see more of his character, there is also this uneasy quality about it. He has such a desperate existence, that he feels very much like a man who could go over the edge at any moment. He cares for very little, but then that keeps you safe in this future. He is too young to know what freedom was like, he grew up with this oppressive regime, so I wouldn't be surprised if everyone was the same. Perhaps it's more noticeable with him because we're seeing his thoughts.
Jesmond gets small sections in the book, but for the most part he's unrelated to the plot. He is rallying up a rebellion with his underground poetry- where the androgynous look is all the rage. It's more than a fashion statement, it's a way for women to stay safe and men to show solidarity with them. Baggy clothes hide figures, women keep themselves thin to create a flatter silhouette. They keep their hair short, while men grow it long and keep themselves clean-shaven. This way women can pass as men in the right circles.
Half-way through the book, the situation changes. The story is told more and more through increasingly fractured thoughts. There'a good reason for it, but saying more would spoil it. The effect it gives is great. It creates the atmosphere, builds the tension and causes a growing sense of fear to develop.
The pace quickens exponentially. What starts out as quite a slow book, suddenly becomes a race to the finish line. It's hard not to give anything away, but if you read it you'll understand. So much happens in the second-half. Everything starts falling together and then falling apart.
I would almost say that the second-half of the book is an entirely different story than the first. They are connected through the main characters, but everything else changes. The book really comes into its own in the second-half. The first-half is almost irrelevant. The characters become more real and more important to the reader. In the first-half I was almost apathetic towards the characters, but when they reach the second-half, suddenly I was on the edge of my seat willing them on. Somewhere between the first and second-half, a switch is flipped and everything changes. The second-half will be what I remember of this book, it will be the reason I tell people to read it, it will be what makes me read it again. I will go through the slow, irrelevant first-half time and time again to reach the wonderful second-half.
Like I said before, the pace changes unbelievably quickly and the ending hits you before you know it. I loved the ending. It's very ambiguous, but brilliant. There are so many questions that appear throughout the story and you don't really get answers to any of them. That may annoy some readers, but I found it all the more gripping and all the more realistic. Life doesn't have all the answers. There are some things we will never know. The ending can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. There's no clarity and we don't really know what happened. I didn't know whether to feel happy or sad, empty or complete. Those unanswered questions, will keep the story and its characters with you, long after the final word.
Disclaimer: This book was sent to me by the author. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.