Book review: Smoke

IMAGINE a world where evil is made manifest, where everything from lustful thoughts to thievery and violence are indicated on the body by dark smoke, coming through from the depths of the pores, staining clothes and branding the sinful? 

Dan Vyleta

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99

This is the premise of Dan Vyleta’s novel, set in Victorian England. 

The son of Czech refugees, who grew up in Germany, Vyleta takes his inspiration from a passage in Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son in which he imagines such a scenario. 

Dickens writes of the inevitable “moral pestilence” that would “be made discernible” were badness physically visible.

Vyleta, who writes in a graphic style, where every sentence is loaded with visual and often visceral detail, sets the opening section of his story in a private boarding school near Oxford. Sin appears as smoke on the bodies and soot on the clothes of the pupils. 

Born with the seeds of evil, they must have their potential for transgression and crime eradicated from them. 

The ruling elite have learned to quell the dark side of their nature and are clean.

This is not just a boarding school yarn, full of japery and cruelty. It is the cradle from which the next generation of rulers are being educated. Some of their teachers are “entangled in affairs that reach from school to parliament and crown”. 

There is something vile about Thomas, a newcomer pupil at the school, according to the pristine Julius, who is a prefect . 

One of the teachers, whose routine involves analysing the dirty laundry of the pupils, says that there’s a moral cancer growing in one of the boys and it requires “drastic measures”. 

Otherwise, the boy concerned will be lost.

Thomas’s father has killed and readers will be intrigued to discover whether the sins of the father will pass on to the unfortunate son, who carries this heavy burden.

On a trip to vice-laden London where the streets are lined with filth and temptation constantly rears its darkly alluring head, Thomas and his friend, Charlie, are drawn to a public execution where a woman, emitting acrid smoke, is for the chop. 

Thomas notices a man (who turns out to be his titled aunt in disguise) stripping the hanged woman for her soot.

Why would anyone want to collect soot from a corpse? It’s all part of Lady Naylor’s seemingly crazy scheme to revolutionise society. 

Lady Naylor, who works from a secret laboratory, uses highly questionable means to fulfil her plan. It involves a young pure boy plucked from some jungle after an extensive worldwide search. 

A large quantity of his blood is drained from his body for Lady Naylor’s so-called scientific experiment. He is held captive for the experiment. Can the means ever justify the end? There is a morality tale going on here and it’s laid on with a heavy hand.

But the novel is gripping despite that. It ratchets up when the boy, Mowgli, is really suffering. Lady Naylor’s daughter, Livia, along with Thomas and Charlie, is on a mission to save Mowgli. Livia is the love interest in the story, torn between the two young men.

Livia tells her mother that she doesn’t think Lady Naylor gives a damn about revolution, or power, or “the common people least of all”. 

Livia reckons that her mother is motivated by revenge, having seen her husband disintegrate and become uncommunicative in an effort to eradicate his darkness. 

“Why mother, why? Just because father went mad? You will remake the world because he took discipline too far?”

This lengthy novel starts out full of promise but there is too much exposition at the expense of action. But it’s a good yarn nevertheless with its politics and class division. 

A miner tells Thomas, Charlie, and Livia that: “Smoking ain’t a sin... It’s a weapon. Toffs use it to keep us down.”

Put that in your pipe, Lady Naylor.


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