Steve “Smithy” Smith is both Magwitch and Pip in this unusual story of wild expectation. The majority of the novel is told via audio transcripts of recordings made by Smithy. At times he is interviewing others, but is it mostly him telling his story of both childhood and the long-delayed solution to a mystery that has haunted him for decades.
All my life it’s haunted me. But now I know, I’m haunted by different ghosts, that’s all. ~Pg. 268
Smithy is finally out of prison after a stint for running drugs and robberies. Low level stuff, but enough to put him away for several years. Determined to live clean and make up for lost time, he gets an old iPhone 4 and begins recording voice memos, telling these stories. His focus is children’s book author Edith Twyford, a hidden code, and Miss Iles, his missing school teacher.
Smithy recalls Miss Iles reading a Twyford book to them in his special remedial English class (even though it was banned). He and the others loved it, but one day she slams it shut and refuses to read any more of it to them. She did however borrow the school’s outing minibus and take them to Edith Twyford’s cottage for a field trip. Smithy remembers having a lovely time until they started loading up and Miss Iles was nowhere to be found. In his memory, one of the other children drove the bus back to school and no one ever saw or heard from Miss Iles again.
So who drove us home? They can’t believe I don’t remember, but it turns out, it were me. Well, me and Paul. He knew how to drive a car thanks to working with his old man in the garage, but couldn’t reach the pedals in a minibus. Nor could I, but with him on pedals and gears, me sharing the driver’s seat steering and indicating, we did it. Donna navigated using a road map from the glove box. Between us we got home before dawn. Left the minibus outside the school gates for the caretaker to wonder about. Ran home. ~Pg. 268
Her disappearance underlined his idea that there was something more to Twyford’s books. Now, Smithy is looking at these memories through the eyes of an adult and he is even more convinced there was a hidden code, Miss Iles was close to cracking it, and he is getting close himself.
The narrative includes these present-day investigations, recollections of his school days, and interviews with childhood friends that remember that school trip. What’s most endearing is Smithy’s everyman status. He’s smart and excellent at figuring out puzzles, but he grew up with a reading disability and lacked advanced education. Between a lack of schooling and years lost in the penal system, he is catching up on so much of what many would consider common knowledge. And yet, he does not see these at setbacks. He finds answers, he solicits help from booksellers, librarians, and professors, and he learns. His tenacity is admirable.
Words are in sections of rhythm, they said, just like music, and got us to see the sections separate before we put them together. kos us dyslexics don’t see detail like regular people, we gotta adapt, and that’s how I look at words now, in waves of music. ~Pg. 116
It also allows the average reader to follow the clues as Smithy discovers them. As the novel progresses, and the solution (and possible treasure) gets closer, it truly does get exciting. Author Hallett has created a modern day Goonies treasure hunt for those of us who assumed the days of such adventures were over.
My thanks to Megan and Maudee at Atria for the advance review copy. Read via NetGalley.
Publisher: Atria Books (January 24, 2023)
Hardcover: 336 pages