Howard McEwen

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My review of Helen Smith’s The Miracle Inspector

October 25th, 2012 · No Comments

England has been partitioned. London is now under a totalitarian regime. It now has a written constitution.* Codicils of the constitution give rise to petty bureaucrats charged with micro-managing the lives of its citizens. One such petty bureaucrat is the Miracle Inspector and his pretty wife. The Miracle Inspector is, of course, charged with inspecting miracles.

I hate mixing art forms but reading this book kept bringing to mind the powerful German film The Lives of Others. Not so much in that film’s politics or thriller quality but in its human quality. The love story. I think Smith demonstrates in this novel, like that film does, how an oppressive government can warp our basic human behavior and emotions. How a government can twist even the best in us – love, caring, compassion – toward fear and paranoia and self-preservation.

The Miracle Inspector is the story of a husband and wife in love with each other but dealing with how their government has twisted the two of them into people they don’t want to be.

Smith is a comedic writer. That sensibility comes through repeatedly and throughout. A cellmate is described:

“He could have been any age from twenty-five to forty-five and he looked like a desert island companion – not in the sense of being an ideal choice, like when people say for example that their ‘desert island’ ice cream would be chocolate and cherry, or mango sorbet. Rather, he looked as though he had been living on a desert island for some time. But there was no hushing sound of waves, no coconut trees, no hot sun or salty breeze, no warm sand to wiggle bare toes in, where they were being held.”

We’re talking prison here, right? And Smith’s mind goes to ice cream? She charms me with that.

As you can see, there’s no leadened-phrased Orwell “a boot stamping on a human face” in The Miracle Inspector. No, the prose is light and airy and thus when the inevitable happens, it strikes with a brute force that makes it that much more tragic. I thought it similar to what it must be in several of these regimes. I picture a ‘light and airy’ Cuba with beautiful people, beaches, water, air and forest…alongside the darkness of Castro’s thugs murdering and imprisoning people; smashing printing presses and clubbing opposition heads.

Helen’s Smith’s words walk across the page like little cat’s feet. She’s not hectoring or lecturing or imposing her ego into the narrative. The prose is soft and hardly felt…until it is.

“A heavy instrument, a cricket bat or something like that, was brought down on the back of his head very hard. More blows on his arms and his shoulders. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The sound of willow hitting leather (even if it was only Jesmond’s old leather jacket) was redolent of a quaint old England that had long since disappeared, so it was quite a fitting sound to be coming from the author of This Faerie England, as if Jesmond had finally found his perfect moment as a performer; a human instrument, which when played would summon up reminders of the lost England he lamented in his poetry. Leather boots connected with the yellowing piano keys of his teeth, but this was less successful, instrumentally speaking. There was no melodic tinkle, no thundering crescendo of keys and chords. But then it takes a very skilled artist to play the piano with his boots, and Jesmond’s attackers were thugs. Although it was impossible to say for sure, just by looking at them, whether or not any of the attackers could play an instrument, it was reasonable to assume that if they had attended more dutifully to music lessons as children, they might have had something more interesting to do to fill their time than beating up an old gentleman. But most of the schools in the state education system had closed down for fear of paedophiles. Music lessons likewise. These thugs were perhaps a product of their time.”

George W. Bush said, “I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.” It’s nonsense, of course. People yearn for what they call ‘freedom’ really just want is licentiousness. They eschew any responsibility. They want the doughnut without the weight gain, the sex without disease or pregnancy, the stable government without the messy, raucous elections. They’d rather be swaddled in third rate state-care as long as they are allowed some form of ‘freedom’ than have the true freedom to provide themselves first-rate lives.

People yearn for the security of totalitarian regimes. That’s why most of the world is made up of them to some extent or another. In The Miracle Inspector, there’s no mention of how this tyranny came down on England. However, women are not allowed outside the home. They are covered from head-to-toe. They are veiled. It is noted that pedophilia scares have shut down most of the schools and keep men from interacting with children.

Is this England a form of theocracy married to suburban paranoia? It’s not said. Early on in the novel, I decided to not try to figure out the nature or cause of the oppression. It’s like those time-travel TV shows. Don’t  try to figure out the time travel rules. Pay attention to what the time travel reveals about the characters. Don’t try to figure out who has imposed a totalitarian government. Just know that it’s been imposed and this is how the characters reacted.

I say not to fixate on it but I did to a degree. I feared Smith was pulling a major punch and thus lessening the effect her work could have had.

Mohamed is the most popular name now given to boys in England. Was the cause of this oppression Islam exerting its influence over that new English Constitution? It seems not only plausible but likely. Yet religion, even in the title characters work, is barely mentioned. Did Smith pull that punch for fear of becoming the next Salman Rushdie or Lars Vilks or Fleming Rose or, worse yet, Theo Van Gogh.

I don’t know. I won’t fault her if that’s the case. However, artist pulling that punch out of fear would only presage the nightmare England Smith describes in The Miracle Inspector.

*an English friend once told me, “The U.K. has a constitution. It’s just not written down.”

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