Leon Garfield has long been one of my favourite children's authors, so I lept at the chance to reread Smith. This is pure Dicksonian melodrama for a younger audience. A gift of talent indeed.
The depths of Eighteenth century London slums, where 'the houses reared and clustered as if to shut out the sky,' are no place for the soft or uninitiated. The very atmosphere weeds the weak from the strong, if not through illness and malnourishment, then by the preying on the unknowing. Surrounded by this miasma of complacent intent is Smith, a rapscallion street pickpocket who breezes through the most atrocious situations with an acceptance of life that amazes. Smith lives in the cellar of the Red Lion Inn with his two sisters who eke out a living makeover the gallows clothes of the condemned. They refer to Smith as 'dear Smut' and 'felonious child!' Half will-o-the-wisp, half trickster and with heart of gold, others might be downcast and resentful at their lot but not so young 'glass-half-full' Smith.
Garfield's language draws you in. I was grabbed from the first with utterances like, 'Smith's speed was remarkable...a rat was like a snail beside Smith.'
His descriptive use of phrase, the twists and turns and metaphors are a delight and are as twisty as the narrow streets and alleyways Smith inhabits.
12-year-old Smith's daily haunts, the atmosphere of the crowded, narrow, putrid streets come alive with brilliant imagery. Colourful images that contain a whiff of the overpowering smells and sounds. Language that gives sight and sound.
Smith's troubles begin when in a narrow lane he picks an elderly gentleman's pocket.
Hearing footsteps he blends back into the shadows and witnesses his mark being stabbed. Murdered! Escaping the scene he discovers that he has, not the valuables he was expecting but some sort of document. And therein lay the rub. Smith cannot read!
Ah, the mystery of the fatal,document leads Smith across the dark streets to new acquaintances, the depths of Newgate Prison, and onto Finchley Common with Lord Tom the highwayman. It's all mad dash and adventure, the tension seesawing from despair and anxiety to determination and hope, underlined by daring and courage.
I must say I had my heart in my mouth and the occasional tear in my eye!
The reread only strengthened my admiration.
A NetGalley ARC