Michael Marshall Smith is a dark, dark author. Most of his works are nihilistic and hopeless, even when they have a happy ending, so it was a bit of a shock to read a comment about The Servants describing it as a children’s book. Having finished it, I wouldn’t necessarily agree, if only because of a few choice pieces of language (the kind that would get it rated R f it were a movie, or labeled with a “Parental Advisory” sticker if it were a CD), but I do think that there is a brilliant presentation of an unstable family dynamic, and the way that an eleven year-old responds to it. Young teen readers, or even more mature younger readers, would possibly find a very important message in this book.
Mark has just moved to seaside Brighton with his mother and new stepfather, and things are not going well for him. He doesn’t like his stepfather, he misses his father, and his relationship with his mother is changing. He sees things that he and his mother used to share, and he sees his new stepfather controlling his mother and Mark in such a way that Mark feels that his stepfather is doing everything in his power to keep him and his mother apart. Considering that Brighton used to be where he vacationed with his parents when they were still married, he is constantly reminded of the happy, idyllic life he once had, and the miserable, depressing one he currently has. Even when his stepfather breaks down the walls between him and Mark, and tries to explain what’s really happening with his mother, he refuses to believe or understand, and continues to blame his stepfather for all the bad things that are happening in his life. At its core, the story is about Mark, his mother, and his stepfather, and the way that Mark is forced to come of age far sooner than he expected to. And that family relationship and how it’s presented seem so true, so genuine, that it’s very easy to get caught up in that story.
Unfortunately, there is also a supernatural element to the book (enough so for my local library to plaster a “Science Fiction” sticker on the spine) that seems tacked on and superfluous. It’s not that I don’t understand its place in the story; it just seems to detract from the otherwise brilliant portrayal of a family in peril. Mark’s misplaced anger and the means by which he has to deal with it is far, far more interesting than the underlying mechanism by which the author chooses to correct that dynamic. It’s not so bad that I wouldn’t recommend the book, but it does seem slightly silly, in retrospect.
I’ve said in previous reviews of Smith’s works that, dark as they might be, they still zoom in on human nature, enough so that you feel like the author is a resident expert. He also crafts a mean plot, and realistic characters, so if you have to start somewhere, The Servants would be a good place. At the very least, it’s the “happiest” book of his that I’ve read so far.