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This review is from: The Machine (Hardcover)
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The Machine was my first foray into the work of James Smythe, and as such I didn't know what to expect. What I discovered was one of the most interesting, compelling and affecting novels I've read in some time...
Beth lost her husband Vic to the Machine, a device designed to remove selective traumatic memories from his time in some unknown war. Instead it stripped him of everything that made him human, leaving him vacant, a shell. Now it's the only think that can bring him back.
It's not a happy tale, let's make that clear right now. There's a fog of despair that seeps into every aspect of the plot, from Beth's guilt and pain of loss, to the flood ruined, globally-warmed near-future in which she lives. There's very little happiness in the world. And that's like cat-nip to this reviewer. Smythe could have set the story at any time or place, and Beth's struggle would still have been touching, but the fact that the state of the world at large directly reflects Beth's own personal plight resonates strongly. Her quest to bring back her husband is the only slight glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak and friendless world.
The plot is insular, as well. It rarely strays from Beth's quiet life at home in her unloved flat or the school where she is overworked and under-appreciated. This too is mirrored by the setting, with Beth living on a version of the Isle of Wight that resembles a slum more than a holiday resort, cut off from the rest of the world by swelling water.
And that's what The Machine is about. Distorted reflections. Beth may get her husband back, but will it ever truly be him? Or just some copy, close but never quite right. Hollow. Broken.
It's a surprisingly brutal story as well. Not so much with violence - though it does feature towards the end - but with the harsh truths of life. Beth's role as Vic's carer is detailed with no holds barred. We experience everything it involves, from cleaning him after he has soiled himself, to how she views him, this vacant shell that she used to love. It's intimate and personal, and Smythe never holds back.
It's a credit to Smythe's writing that he can address these tough themes - from global-warming to street gangs, from care work and social responsibility to religion and the nature of the soul - in such a frank and emotional way, yet keep the book so readable. And it really is: I devoured the 328 page novel in a couple of days, compelled to discover more Beth and Vic, more about the world they inhabit, and, most of all, more about the Machine.
Ah yes, the Machine. I love it when authors create a character from inanimate objects or buildings, and Smythe did a great job with the Machine (never referred to as anything other than the Machine). It's a constant presence, huge and over-bearing in Beth's spare room, humming and whirring, radiating its presence, never allowing you to forget that it is there. The source of Beth's pain, but also her only comfort. There's something so ominous about it, something intangible, something... alive.
The Machine by James Smythe is a dark, dreamlike (or maybe that should be nightmarish) delight to read. There's something ineffable about it, yet so grounded in reality. Smythe is undoubtedly a talented author, and I look forward to appreciating his work again soon.