Michelle Herbert reviews Smoke by Dan Vyleta…
Smoke starts in a boarding school where we as readers are thrown into the deep end with a late night school ritual, that welcomes us to some of the characters this story follows. The novel seems to be set 1800’s, but the period only matters because it is a time of great change, with industrialisation and innovative ideas emerging. Set in an alternative past, Smoke focuses on the lives of two boys as they begin to learn the truth about the complex lies they have been taught.
The main characters are best friends Thomas and Charlie, who are the polar opposites of each other. Thomas is an oddity at the school as he was home-schooled until the age of 16 which makes him stand out from his classmates. Thomas is surly and mysterious. Charlie, on the other hand, is very likeable and gets on with most of the students and staff. Charlie is trying to help initiate Thomas into the ways of the school.
Smoke switches mainly between Charlie and Thomas’ perspectives. As the story progresses we are introduced to a lot of adults with their own agendas, some of these, are teachers, whilst others are parent/guardians. Charlie and Thomas are on the cusp of adulthood and have to navigate through all of these interactions, even as they are guided by their own naivety. The novel soon takes them out of the relative safety of their school on a journey of discovery, made more complicated when we find out more about Thomas’ relations and what their objectives are.
Smoke is a really interesting concept as everyone in England is affected by it, with each person born into “Sin”. Rich or poor, when you think about doing a bad thing or if you commit what is known as a sin your body begins to smoke, this seems to be produced through skin pores, but can also be seen via the nostrils or mouth. There are different kinds of smoke, depending on what the characters are feeling, but black smoke it the worst and you are judged to be someone who may develop criminal tendencies. Society sees smoke as a bad thing, and there are different rules for the rich and poor. The poor are told that the rich don’t smoke as they are a better class of people! Children are taught that smoke has been around forever and with an isolationist government, there is no way for them to learn about what is happening in the rest of the world.
The richer parts of society have moved out of the major cities to the countryside, where they do not have to be reminded about the poor living in squalor. Being in close proximity to other people’s smoke can affect the way you feel for a short time. This is why London is seen as being a cesspit of sin, which is reflected by the number of murders and debauchery to be found there. Whilst Charlie and Thomas start to understand the variances of life for people who do not have their privileges, we are introduced to a fully realised England. In a way, we are shown that these characters are taught that feeling emotions is a bad thing. Over time, as you reach maturity you are able to repress feelings like passion and anger, making for an aristocracy that is puritanical by nature.
Charlie and Thomas stumble onto a large conspiracy with the help of Thomas’ cousin Livia. As the main characters start a cross-country journey to uncover the truth, they have to keep themselves safe from being hunted. Especially when they become pawns of both the government and reformists. With everyone having their own agendas, there isn’t a true villain of the story, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t monsters lurking amongst the books pages, with some very intense and scary moments.
Smoke is a compelling story that is very layered, allowing the book not to be easily categorised. There is a lot of intensity as the characters stumble into situations that they are not fully equipped to handle. The novel is also a cross between a morality tale and an allegory of modern times, with the government of this story lying to the people to gain more control as well as continuing to keep the general populace in line. Whether Charlie, Thomas, and Livia will change the inertia of the society they live in or help keep the status quo, is something that will keep you guessing until the final page. Although I did have to wonder what it would be like if we lived in a world where every time you lied, everyone would know.