Looking through the notes I pencilled while reading In Search of Adam, I see ‘lists and more lists’, ‘Oh God, not again’, ‘relentless, dark’, and ‘makes me physically sick’. This story is distressing and difficult. It contains no humour that I could detect. It is unstoppably depressing.
Before I continue, let me invite the reader to step, for one moment, into the grisly, twisted world of the reviewer. I don’t read a book in quite same way as a ‘normal’ reader – that is, a reader who does not intend to write a report. A review must stand alone as an item of interest. That is, it must have substance, an ‘angle’ to power the writing, and perhaps a glimmer of something larger; a general principle, for instance, that can contextualise comments and criticisms.
During my travels through In Search of Adam – which has taken me many months, with pauses for recovery – I’ve been lifting my reviewer’s cap to scratch my head. How will I write a piece on this? There is something fundamentally ungraspable about the book.
And yet here I am, writing. Why? Because the essential question that compels a reviewer is ‘Did I think it was any good?’ And to that, at least, I have an answer.
Jude Williams is six years, four months and two days old when she happens across the naked body of her mother. Next to the bed, she finds a bottle of Vodka and eleven tablets. A note reads, ‘jude, i have gone in search of adam. i love you baby’. It takes the narrator five short sentences to reach this suicide. Those five sentences represent the sum of Jude’s pre-disaster life. Then, bang, we’re in her world of hurt.
I have a prejudice about the novel as a form. I think it should impart emotional energy. Not every good novel will do this, but most will. In Search of Adam is one of them. By the end of the first chapter, I was saddened and uncomfortable. The book has an emotional engine that Smailes guns mercilessly. The story succeeds as a study of disconnection, contamination, and the loss of momentum in a young life.
On more than one occasion, Smailes rakes the throttle to a pitch rather too high for me. A graphic rape scene made me drop the book and walk out of my house, just to find some sunshine. Late in the book, one paragraph made me literally nauseous. True, these moments are examples of fine craft, and honesty, but they come like sudden blares of sound from Jude’s pianissimo scribblings.
This book is unusual in other ways. Smailes – a linguistics lecturer at the Open University – has smashed the grammar of her sentences and sprinkled their debris, varying the typography as she goes. For example:
I tried to sketch her. In case I began to forget. But. I couldn’t capture her ocean eyes. I wasn’t good enough. My drawings were rubbish.
The effect is staccato and unsettling. One may worry that something essential has broken inside Jude; even her ruminations have lost their connective tissue. Or perhaps Smailes wishes the reader to connect directly to the language of Jude’s thoughts, laid bare without the post-processing of style and smoothing.
This book is pitched as literary. Unimportantly, there are no speech marks. The words of others appear like voices inside the narrator’s head. More importantly, if one were to speak of narrative as a ramp, In Search of Adam has a very shallow gradient. There is little to pull the reader through the book save the steady unravelling of Jude’s life. When elements of suspense are introduced and – for me – the book becomes suddenly twice as alive, Smailes appears to eschew their employment in the manner of a traditional storyteller. Such moments are defused before they can explode, and we return to the onward slog whose conclusion, alas, is somewhat inevitable.
Smailes is a talented writer, but would I recommend this book to a friend? A quote on the cover, from Ray Robinson, author of Electricity, reads, ‘unique, exciting and unforgettable’. When I was knocked briefly unconscious by my surf board a few years back, it was all of these things.
And yet I’m writing this review. Adam was, at the end, worth looking for.