So it seems another day, another book that is a bit of a swine to review in many ways thanks to Mr James Smythe and his third book, though my first of his, ‘The Machine’. There are two main reasons that this book has vexed me from a ‘book thoughts/review’ aspect (as a reader – though is there a difference – I simply thought it was brilliant) firstly the fact that for me the book was so brimming with ideas and themes it will be difficult to encapsulate them, secondly I don’t want to spoil how the book pans out and so I am going to have to watch my words very carefully and allow you to stitch a picture of the book together yourselves, rather like the ominous relationship between the Machine, of the title, and memory in the novel…
It is a hot day on the Isle of Wight as Beth waits for a mysterious parcel. All we know initially is that whatever is contained in it is something that Beth both has her hopes and dreams encapsulated in, yet at the same time clearly doesn’t want anyone else knowing she had. (This is slightly scuppered when the delivery men have to take her window out in order to get it in her high rise flat.) Once they have left and the unwrapping begins we discover that Beth has bought, highly illegally, one of the few ‘Machines’ left since they were banned some years ago.
This ‘machine’ was designed to rewire the brains, and memories of those who suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s, until someone saw the commercial benefits of an appliance, if you will, that could edit and re-write (“Purge. Commit. Replenish.”) memories and which then went wrong as Beth learnt when her husband, Vic – or Victor, with a nice nod to ‘Frankenstein’, started to use one after an incident fighting in the war, he now lies just a body with no memories in a home. Now though, Beth plans to re-programme her husband with ‘the machine’. But what if people can’t be programmed like a computer, what if ‘the machine’ has other ideas, and possibly memories, of its own?
“She can’t call in sick again the following day, she knows, not this close to the end of term; so she leaves the house after making sure it’s all unplugged. She shuts the spare bedroom door behind her – the Machine’s room, she thinks as she does it – and checks the locks on her front door twice. She doesn’t know why. The Machine’s not going anywhere.”
As if that wasn’t enough of a story/plot for anyone Smythe throws in even more for his readers to ponder and involve themselves with. Firstly is the setting, when we first learn of the machine we get the feeling there is a science fictional element to the book and indeed we are proved right as we learn that global warming, thought it’s never spelt out as such, has caused huge weather changes and floods worldwide changing the landscape of all forever, London itself now has ‘the Barrage’ on its skyline to protect it from further flooding. Yet despite the newly found heat of the UK and the fact it hardly ever rains (almost impossible to imagine as a Brit, yet you do) little else has changed, poundland is still very much a commodity, pubs are still going, etc which oddly adds to the unease of the whole of the book. The sense of place and atmosphere, along with the machine itself are all at once familiar yet very ‘other’ becoming quite unsettling and adding a sense of horror around the edges.
“When it rains, most of the South Coast gets caught up in celebrating. It still rains a little more in Scotland, but the closer you get to London it almost entirely ceases. It’s not a drought any more, though so many people still call it that. The hosepipe ban started and never ended. When it rains, if the kids are in the classrooms, they get more restless than at the end of term. They can’t be kept, and sometimes one or two of them have just stood up in the middle of Beth’s class and walked out, choosing instead to dance around on the torn Astroturf outside.”
For me one of the aspects of ‘The Machine’ that really hit me the most, along with everything else yet this had a real emotional pull, was the theme of memory. Whilst Vic is not suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia his situation echo’s that of many of those who do suffer from it and also those left caring or on the outside, like Beth, from the affects of it. How does someone cope loving someone who can’t remember them let alone love them back? Do we ourselves forget what the person was really like as we look at someone who seems so helpless; do we not edit the memories of just the happiest of times with them? Even here though the sinister creeps in, as we hear more of Beth’s internal narrative (and struggle) we question just what she herself has chosen to remember of her husband, is he really the man that she describes with loss driven and lonely worn rose tinted glasses?
I found ‘The Machine’ was a book as chilling, and thrilling, as it was emotional and thought provoking. It is also one of those books that delightfully defies any labels of genre, delightful both for the reader and as one in the eye for those who want a book to be pigeonholed if at all possible. It is the sort of book – from the sort of author – that ought to be winning lots of prizes and being read by lots of people. I think that is all I need to say to be frank.
Who else has read ‘The Machine’ and what did you make of it? Which of his other books have your read? It seems that ‘The Explorer’ is meant to be quite something, is that the one that I should try next?
I will be in conversation with Mr Smythe (along with Kerry Hudson and Claire McGowan) on Monday night in Liverpool – scroll down this page a bit for more details – do come along.