Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words For Smoke

Sophie Grenham reviews writer and poet SARAH MARIA GRIFFIN‘s new novel, set in Co Wicklow …

You know the sort of lucid dreams that seemingly go on for hours, where you walk through labyrinth corridors, enter strange rooms and interact with talking animals? Visualise those trippy dealings you’ve had with your subconscious and you might possibly have stumbled inside Sarah Maria Griffin’s brain. She’s what you might call a Neil Gaiman for the millennial era.

No stranger to non-fiction, Griffin published Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home (2013, New Island), a collection of essays about emigrating to San Francisco. Her other work has appeared in The Rumpus, Guts, Winter Pages, The Stinging Fly and The Irish Times.

Her searing debut young adult novel, Spare and Found Parts (Titan Books), won the European Science Fiction Awards Chrysalis Award in 2017 and was nominated for an Irish Book Award in 2018. Her dystopian Dublin gave us a frightening glimpse into a collapsed society where the existence of computers has become folklore.

The fact that Griffin is a seasoned poet and spoken word artist would explain the raw, meticulous beauty of every sentence she lays down. I’d imagine she spends hours pulling, plucking and replacing words, testing how they fit together. Follies, her first collection of verse, was published by Lapwing in 2011. One might assume the author often mulls as she potters about the Ringsend house she shares with her husband Ceri Bevan, burning candles and chatting to Moriarty, the absurdly large black-and-white cat they adopted in San Francisco.

Griffin’s new novel, Other Words For Smoke is set in the foothills of Co Wicklow, a land scarred by religious scandal. The story begins when twins Mae and Rossa Frost come to stay with their great-aunt Rita and her ward, Bevan Mulholland. Told over two summers, with a pocket of vignettes in between, the book gives us teenage hormones and identity, queer love and sexual awakening. All the while under a roof that houses tarot cards and rituals, witches and familiars, and a neon portal to another world. Expect to find Bobby Dear the talking cat, Sweet James the flesh-hungry owl that lives behind a wall, and pages dotted with clever footnotes. The book’s language and construction is simply exquisite; lavish but economical, surreal but contained. This snippet should give you a taste of the tone without serving you the whole dish: “How badly she wanted to possess the thing that possessed her.”

Other Words For Smoke (€9.99) is published by Titan Books and available now.

@SophieGrenham

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