Matthew Smith’s The Waking is published by Wundor Editions who are a mere one year old and have a tiny list. This is the kind of combination that has me reaching for the ‘no thank you’ button – accepting review copies then finding you don’t like them from the conglomerates is one thing, agreeing to look at one with no guarantee to review it from such a small outfit is quite another. The novel’s premise, however, was tempting and happily it turned out to be well worth reading. Exploring themes of grief, art and literature, The Waking is about Isabel, a young woman whose mother, Marianne, died in a fire when she and her siblings were children.
Isabel has spent her life surrounded by words. Her father is a literary critic and her mother was a novelist whose first book met with great acclaim. One evening, their parents at a Hampstead drinks party just around the corner, Isabel and her brother are in the garden caught up in a game while their younger sister is inside reading. They see what might be a fire in the house but do nothing until it suddenly takes hold. It seems that Marianne had returned, after all, and was unable to escape the flames. Having finished her degree, Isabel has installed herself in a flat bought with her mother’s money which has left her secure but directionless. She finds herself overcoming her suspicions of a PhD student intent on gaining information about Marianne’s work, opening-up to Imogen and accepting her revelation that she was once the family’s babysitter. A bond of intimacy forms between these two which throws Isabel into a quandry of doubt about her past, disturbing her sleep and clouding her memories, while throwing up a multitude of questions about Imogen and her perplexing behaviour.
Smith is a poet whose skills are smartly showcased in Isabel’s vivid childhood memories, brightly sketched word pictures around which he structures his novel. She’s a satisfyingly unreliable narrator: her memory a little patchy, her sleep so disturbed that she seems unable to think entirely straight. No slouch at suspense, Smith is adept at pulling the rug from under his readers’ feet. It seems that no one can quite agree what happened the night of the Hampstead fire, each version a little different from the previous one, and there’s a constant nagging question as to what Imogen might be up to. The novel loses its way in the reconstruction of Marianne’s unfinished novel towards the end which slackened the pace a little for me but there’s a satisfying resolution. Overall, it’s a gripping narrative, a smart and pacy literary thriller which explores the indelible scars of loss.