January 7, 2013


by Helen Smith
252 pages, Tyger Books

Review by Marc Nash

What's your favourite cause of dystopian society? Nuclear apocalypse? Viral pandemic? Economic crash and burn? The London of this book has contrived to put itself under a dystopian yoke through democracy! Entrusted with power, the people have wilfully demonstrated either apathy or irony in their choices. Consequently London has saddled itself with a mad self-aggrandising bureaucracy of nonsensical jobs, such as Lucas as the Inspector of Miracles. Though there is a vague unstated threat of worldwide terrorism, more local threats of rapists and paedophiles at large, have led to women being prohibited from work, having no political rights, being largely confined to the house and having to wear burka-like garments when outside in public.

Art, too, falls foul of this regime, since art offers outlets for protest and politicisation. In a world without art there is a diminished notion of love. The novel's husband and wife main characters struggle across the kitchen table to communicate with one another, let alone approach any notion of love. They cast their fantasies and desires outside of their shared house. Angela, although she doesn't understand the concept, wants to be a poet's muse. Her mind flies with some love letters she's been entrusted with which like her, dream of escape beyond London. Lucas visits the wife of his security chief who has been under surveillance, so that Lucas wants to put flesh on the fantasy figure he has been a witness to on screen. With the house under CCTV surveillance, he has to lure her outside, where of course she is clad head to foot in her swaddling attire, so no flesh is visible. In his job as the official investigator into claims of miracles, he becomes attached to a mute girl who only communicates by smiling. His honed senses tells him she has no miraculous powers, yet something about her and her mother who was formerly a news reader means they are included in his plans to escape from London.

The characters' thought processes are impressionistic and mainly inconclusive. After all, they are overwhelmed by trying to match their own limited analytical abilities with the thoughts and necessary conditions on their behaviour embedded by the system. Echoes of Orwell's "1984" here. Put this together with the feminist perspective suggested by the regressive legislation affecting women and you might conceive this to be a political novel. But Smith is far more subtle than that. The Miracle Inspector is more an investigation into the true nature and possibility of love. Characters come to empathise with others around them, make sacrifices, demonstrate an awareness of the 'other'. Verbal communication itself may remain stunted, but a real emotional mutuality is attained. The ending for Lucas and Angela is utterly heart-rending. The young poet who has the novel's final words makes your mouth fall open with the simple but poignant observation he offers.

I described Smith's previous novel as 'slyly subversive'. This novel is all that and more.

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