There’s a moment in classic 1990s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary where Fielding’s heroine, appalled by the state of the segregated smoking carriage on a train journey, vents in her journal: ‘Would not have been in least surprised if carriage had mysteriously been shunted off into siding never to be seen again. Maybe privatised rail firms will start running Smoking Trains and villagers will shake their fists and throw stones at them as they pass, terrifying their children with tales of fire-breathing freaks within.’
Bridget strikes a chord, not just on the identification of smoke with sin (even the harmless electronic cigarette is frowned upon in some public health circles) but the imagery of it – people of ash riding a doomed train. It’s an image that comes to mind on reading Smoke, Dan Vyleta’s fantasy thriller where sin is all too visible. In Vyleta’s England (it’s set in the nineteenth century, although could be later because the authorities in Vyleta’s England suppress new technology and the world beyond its borders) any dark thoughts or impulses cause actual smoke to rise from the person’s skin.
In boarding school, where we begin the story, the environment is carefully regimented so that barely anyone ever emits the sin-smoke at all: later, the boys visit London, a city almost caved in by the weight of its own smoke and soot. Vyleta’s young protagonists get caught between the Tory and Whiggish wings of the authorities, each trying to carve its own path to the Republic of Virtue: there’s also a working class rebel movement that works in underground mines so that the smoke coming off the conspirators is less obvious.
It’s all beautifully written but Vyleta’s concept isn’t as original as he thinks: the idea of someone’s inner life taking physical form is as old as sin itself – think of the dæmons of Northern Lights, or Patrick Ness’s Noise. Still, there’s loads of fascinating angles on poverty, prejudice and class, and reflections on the puzzle of sin in a secular world – why hidden thoughts and motivations still seem more important than actual demonstrable actions. (Politics these days seems near written in the language of faith.) As the sailor says in Vyleta’s absorbing novel: ‘This is Britain, though. Here crookery has had a haircut, and its shirt cuffs are freshly ironed.’