The Servants
Michael Marshall Smith
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Buy *The Servants* by Michael Marshall Smith online

The Servants
Michael Marshall Smith
224 pages
September 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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A swirling, ghostly coming-of-age story, The Servants is told from the point of view of eleven-year-old Mark, who would never have thought to find himself living in Brighton with his remote stepfather, David, and his delicate and sickly mother. Within weeks of David coming into their lives, Mark’s mother started to get ill. From the outset, it became pretty obvious that there was something terribly wrong - all she could do was sit at home all day and stare silently out the living room window at the vast Brighton seascape.

David offhandedly informs Gerald that, from the start, his mother needs rest and quiet, and for the time being she can’t even consider stepping outside the front door to go for a walk or have dinner in one of the many restaurants that pepper the boardwalk. Mark’s relationship with his stepfather has been difficult at best. He misses his natural father and his cosmopolitan life back up in London. His only real comfort is his skateboard, a recent present from his father, which he plays with along the great stretches of the asphalt promenade by the beach.

Mark spends most of his afternoons virtually friendless with no one to talk to about his dreams and his disappointments, watching the other boys joke and toss each other around. All the while he skates in silence, going home to the three-story house on Brunswick Square that belongs to David but doesn’t feel anything like home

A fall through his bedroom window jumpstarts a series of events that force Mark to question his life as he sees it and what is real and what is not. In the corridor below, where an old lady lives crammed into a tiny flat, David that meets a collection of ghostly servants. They seem to have appeared from another time and another place when the house was full of life and activity. A symbolic gatekeeper to the darker secret of these long-dead servants, the old lady quietly falls asleep and David is able to steal the key and inhabit the gloomy recesses of the creaking house where the hallways and shelves might be empty but are thick with the dust and cobwebs of a generation ago.

Perhaps Mark is dreaming that he had fallen asleep in the old lady’s chair then dreamed he’d woken, stolen the key from the drawer and gone to the back of the house. But surely dreams “do not leave dust on your hands or smudges on the shoulders of your jacket.” After a few more trips behind the large, creaky door, the servants become evermore real, and Mark becomes trapped in the noisy chaos of the gathering storm, both he and the servants thrown away from each other by the cyclone of ash and blackness and fear.

As the swirl of smoke and ash starts to revolve faster, author Michael Marshall Smith swirls a unique and bittersweet tale out of the cinders of Mark’s lonely existence. Gradually realizing the enormity of his position, the servants' plight to clean their rooms and their desire to include Mark in the process provide the story’s central metaphor as Marks learns some tough lessons in how to battle his own life so far. Mark begins to move through parallel worlds, questioning his own mundane existence and the strange life of the servants who seem to be trapped between past and present, between fantasy and truth.

As the cold, sleet, and icy winds buffet Brighton beach, Mark finally grasps the essential meaning behind his journey into the world of the servants. He’s taken too many things for granted for too long a while. Times of course change, and things do not remain the same; real life does not go on forever, just like London did. The reality is far more like Brighton: “Things change and things stop, and things eventually fall away into the sea."

A compelling tale that centers on the moral dilemmas of one young boy trapped like a fragile bird in a cage with no apparent way out, the novel is always measured and controlled even as the story reeks of spectral events, the servants crying out for help from Mark. In the end, Mark’s journey is about traveling toward the paths of understanding of the world, and of the bittersweet walkways of life as he finds ways to help the servants while attempting to forge a new kind of peace with his mother, and with David.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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