(I am a Harper Voyager Super Reader: HarperVoyager gives me free advance copies of upcoming science-fiction and fantasy titles, and in return I write honest reviews. This one is spoiler-free.)
Who in the world is Michael Marshall Smith, and what brilliant planet did he just arrive from? His novel Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence had me exclaiming this aloud from the first pages all the way to the end. He turns out to be a well-established writer with several well-received novels, sold screenplays, and prestigious awards on his vita. Hannah Green was actually published in hardcover last year and is slated to expand its readership vastly via paperback release in early November. It’s a cleverly told young adult novel (also suitable for adults) that answers eternal teen questions such as: Why does my life have to be so Unfeasibly Mundane? Couldn’t something interesting happen for a change? Isn’t there more to life than this?
Eleven-year-old Hannah has just what the title says. She has no clue how nightmarish and perilous the answers to her exasperated questions will prove. Most of the story is told through her eyes, her limited understanding, with brief glimpses through her parents’ eyes (and one nasty criminal’s!). Her father writes for various Hollywood movie and TV people (much like the real-life author). Her mother is some kind of big business wheeler-and-dealer who travels a lot for work. The parents abruptly separate, and Dad isn’t dealing with it well at all, so he sends her to live with her rootless but loving Granddad. That’s when bizarre things start to happen.
One element I especially appreciated about this book is its metanarrative quality. Throughout, it’s a story about stories, both lived and written—an unusually successful one that frequently speaks directly to the reader. I’d estimate that there about a hundred ways to get that element wrong—generally some variation on “cute but too precious”—but Smith gets it just right on every page. Quotable passages crowd the book, but I’ll just mention a couple. The story begins like this:
Imagine, if you will, a watchmaker’s workshop.
In fact, please imagine one whether you wish to or not. That’s where something’s about to happen, something that won’t seem important right away but will turn out to be—and if you’re not prepared to listen to what I’m saying then this whole thing simply isn’t going to work.
Imagine that thing I just said. . . .
[After a couple of pages describing the watchmaker’s work and life:]
No, no, no. Sorry. Stop imagining things.
I’ve got this completely wrong. I’ve tried to tell the story from the beginning.
That’s always a mistake. I’ve learned my lesson since, and have even come to wonder if this is what I was dimly starting to comprehend on that cold, long-ago afternoon. Life is not like a watch or clock, something that can be constructed and then wound for the first time, set in motion.
There is no beginning. We are always in the middle.
OK, look. I’m going to start again.
About 2/3 through the book, Smith makes this brilliant observation:
Meanwhile, other things were happening. They always are, and that’s why it’s so damned hard to keep track of the world. You put them down and think, I’ll come back to them later, but when you do, they’ve run off to be part of some other story. One of the perilous things about being an adult is there comes a point where the doors of your mind open far wider than required by your own concerns. There’s no ceremony when this occurs, and no warning. It simply happens one day and suddenly you find there are seventy things going on at once and you’re flinching amidst a maelstrom of love and lost opportunities and hard choices and the tenacious grasping hands of the past, not to mention tidying the garage. Adults are not distracted for the sake of it, so cut them a little slack. They’re all searching for the brake to stop the world spinning, so they can take a moment and catch their breath.
That “brake to stop the world spinning,” by the way, becomes a key literal plot device shortly afterward.
Comparisons to Neil Gaiman feel natural, almost inevitable. Much as Gaiman does in works such as Stardust, Neverwhere, and Coraline, Smith combines amusing metanarrative touches with insightful, incredibly inventive cosmology. You’ll never predict what creatures, situations, and realities Hannah Green will reveal, but you’ll definitely find them entertaining. I can say this much, which is basically blurbed on the cover: Hannah’s Granddad is actually a few hundred years old. He is a friend and collaborator of the Devil’s (yes, that one). Waking up after several hundred years in a sort of soft hibernation, the Devil urgently needs help that only Granddad can give. Hannah, staying with Granddad, comes along for the ride.
Myriad plot twists, shocks, and dark surprises later, Smith wraps things up self-consciously like the author of a Victorian triple-decker. Every single character, major, minor, and in-between, is accounted for satisfyingly. Everyone gets what they deserve. Hannah returns to her unfeasibly mundane existence a sadder and a wiser girl.
Grab this paperback when it comes out in November! You’ll be glad you did!