Top critical review
A little too convenient
on 14 September 2011
The Servants has long been a book I wanted to read. As with other reviewers here; my favourite books were from MMS' early years (Only Forward, Spares, One of Us, What You Make It) before the switch to the suspense/supernatural thriller genre he now writes. While The Servants does have some promise, sadly, this turned out to be an unsatisfying and mediocre book.
The prologue gave me hope that this was going to be a return to form with the description of an elderly woman going about her daily routine with an ending note of unease that MMS can write so well. The introduction of Mark, an eleven year old boy, sitting on the beach at Brighton is well done in giving his background and creating the depiction of young boy who has not come to terms with his family's break-up and move from London. The following chapters move the story along with Mark's increasing conflict with his step-father, his mother's obviously serious illness, driving him to meet the elderly woman seen in the prologue. The thought that this may turn into a story of a twinkly-eyed elder dishing out advice to a child with problems was not entirely accurate, but it wasn't quite far enough away either.
After being shown the servant's quarters that are part of the elderly woman's basement flat, Mark finds he is drawn to return to the decayed kitchen and pantries. All of which are located beneath the house he now lives in. It is here he has an encounter with the apparent ghosts of former household staff.
From this point the novel (or novelette, if you prefer) seems to lose its initial momentum. Mark initially disbelieves the experience but quickly convinces himself it is real. It begins to read as one long, repetitive sequence of Mark wandering around what seems to be half a mile of Brighton in wintery weather, having arguments with his step-father, getting annoyed with his mother, learning to skateboard and sneaking to the basement. Oh and lots of Chinese takeaway. It's with this kind of plotting that the initial tension finally gives up and leaves the room.
What does little to help is that Mark is a not very believable eleven year old. His character flips back and forth between being a manipulative, ignorant and angry child to having insights and thoughts that you'd credit to a mature teenager. That's not to say it couldn't happen, just that in this context it is not credible. It becomes a convenient way to move the plot onwards. Mark walks, skates, goes in and out of the downstairs flat with nary a moment when his family seem the slightest bit interested or concerned. Considering that he's eleven and his mother is in her final days of a terminal illness that seems a remarkably blasé attitude. The elderly lady (who, most irritatingly, is never given a name) is somehow knowledgeable that Mark, and his family, needs help but with no explanation at all as to why. Her role - which started with such interesting hints, seems to lead up to nothing more than being the main character enabler. The eponymous servants are given names but their role, which is treated with such heavy-handed symbolism it is telegraphed before the finale, is also never given the least explanation. It is because it is.
This could have been a much more powerful story. The depiction of a seaside town in winter does make for some serious atmosphere (which is why writers going back to M.R James and beyond have made use of it in ghost stories) and anyone who has read Only Forward knows with what skill MMS has used similar imagery. But this has far too many convenient incidents and unexplained character motivations to move things along to a happy but ultimately empty ending.