Michael Marshall Smith, Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence (HarperCollins, 2018, 368pp, £8.99)
Reviewed by Ian Campbell (Georgia State University)
Michael Marshall Smith has various pseudonyms and guises – Michael Marshall, Michael Rutger, M.M. Smith. He prefers his own name for his science fiction titles, most notably Only Forward (1994) and Spares (1996), and now this, his first venture into Young Adult fantasy, where a very grumpy Devil walks the earth. Hannah Green is a self-aware eleven-year-old, who finds her parents’ divorce too stressful and flees to visit her grandfather. She quickly finds that her grandfather manufactures certain equipment for the Devil, who as it turns out isn’t quite the master of his infernal domain. The Devil’s reasons for needing this equipment, as well as Hannah’s grandfather’s reasons for manufacturing it, appear to be directed toward one purpose, but the situation is gradually revealed to be rather more complicated and nuanced. Hannah doesn’t manage to reunite her family, but takes solace in helping to save the world.
To describe the plot further would be to spoil it; rather, let us focus on the novel’s better qualities, of which there are many. Hannah herself is first among them: Smith does an excellent job of depicting a tween who is neither Mary Sue nor antihero. She’s fleshed out, speaks authentically, and has weaknesses. She deals with her parents’ divorce by coming to grips with their humanity. She is able to understand that her father is a person above and beyond his role in her own life; perceiving this additional dimension in him enables her to begin to create it within herself. She reacts to the intrusion of the supernatural in her life with perhaps a bit less astonishment than a real tween might, but this does move the story along rather better. There is, thankfully, no attempt at creating a love interest. Hannah is an only child in a world full of adults.
The other characters are well-drawn and behave like intelligent beings: their motivations drive their actions in a manner that makes these characters seem rooted in the story rather than extraneous to it or merely plot elements. The version of our world portrayed in the book is plausible within its own framework and serves as an interesting reflection on how people’s inability to control their appetites is often what dooms them. It has well-done chase and fight scenes. The comic relief character is entertainingly buffoonish and wise at the same time. Smith’s portrayal of Hannah’s mother, who instigated the divorce, stands out here: he manages to make us sympathetic to an unsympathetic character by presenting her as trapped by her own impulses, thus mirroring what Hannah later sees when briefly trapped in the hell-world that lies behind the real world.
The story itself is very well-structured, has clear lines of cause and effect, and is subtler than it initially seems. Hannah’s story parallels the Devil’s without having to be too overt about it, and the plot races ahead just slowly enough to make its scenes enjoyable yet quickly enough to make it a challenge to put down. Such side plots as exist are kept simple and relate back to the main plot. The prose style is clear and direct: Smith stays away from wordplay for its own sake and enables readers to focus on the story rather than tease out meaning. The text uses relatively simple constructions, as befits YA literature for the most part, and mixes them up with some more complex ones to create an organic cadence.
Smith’s text is least persuasive when it goes meta, which it does rather more often than it should. There are a number of passages in the book where the narrative skips from its dominant free indirect style to directly addressing the reader. The general point of these passages is to tell us that Hannah’s life, now that the divorce has begun, has moved from comforting and comfortable childhood stories into narratives that are larger than she and over which she has less than total control. As a metaphor for the transition from childhood into adolescence, this is reasonably persuasive, but it’s overdone and a bit intrusive. Yet this is a novel pitched at tweens, and therefore to criticize it for lack of subtlety is in a certain sense misplaced; moreover, while these passages are numerous, they’re generally short and reasonably well-written. Most adult readers will learn to skim them; some tweens may skim or skip them; other young readers may find them helpful.
The world behind and parallel to our own, to which Hannah gains access and in which she witnesses the results of total submission to appetite, is the most compelling aspect of the novel beyond Hannah herself. In a particularly memorable scene, Hannah ends up at a restaurant, where it only gradually becomes clear to her that this is the mirror-world version of a real-world restaurant. The patrons are all unable to escape the pull that appetite has upon them; Hannah is granted the understanding of how and why they are slaves to their desires and addictions. This happens in several stages, giving a fresh feel to images of gradual descent.
As befits a novel for tweens, sexuality of any sort is largely absent from Hannah’s perspective. The scenes involving Hannah’s mother in the first half of the book do reference the mother’s sexuality, but this is framed as emotion and a desire for connection more than as physical desire; moreover, this narrative is clearly separate from the main narrative told more or less from Hannah’s perspective. Once the two narratives merge, Hannah’s mother is largely preoccupied with trying to find and protect her daughter, and to the extent that Hannah becomes aware of why her mother left, it has little to do with sexuality. The novel addresses some adult themes, but this is done with sensitivity and as part of the story.
I would recommend Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence to anyone with children who can read at a high-school level. It is not without flaws, but they are very minor in comparison to a great number of positive attributes, including character, story, prose style and theme.