When Elizabeth is woken by the smell of smoke, she is filled with panic. It isn’t coming from inside the house but from outside – and, as a former forest fire fighter, she knows it’s big. She also knows she and her husband (Ben) have to move – quickly. The question is to where – and do they go together because the night before they had decided to divorce.
For Ben and Elizabeth life, which once seemed so simple, is complicated. And the fire makes it more so. Elizabeth gave up her job (and her passion) for fire fighting to be home with Ben, a high school teacher, and start a family – a family which didn’t emerge as quickly as they had both expected, leading to resentment.
Now, there is a fire on the doorstep and Elizabeth is drawn to it and the life she used to lead. As it gets closer to town, it is like she can’t turn away from the flames. Elizabeth is also drawn into the investigation of what started it. What, or possibly who.
The who could be the owner of the house near the fire’s origin. Or it cold be the kids who have been hanging around his property, drinking beer and taunting him. As the fire worsens and the town feels increasingly under threat, tensions rise and fingers are pointed. Especially feeling the tension is Mindy, who knows her son Angus snuck out of the house the night of the fire and who she isn’t convinced didn’t have anything to do with it.
Angus isn’t the only thing on Mindy’s mind though, especially as Elizabeth’s investigation leads to their path’s crossing – something that hasn’t happened since the once best friends (yes, it gets more complicated than just Elizabeth and Ben’s relationship) had a major falling out. The question is whether Elizabeth’s investigation will end up with them rebuilding their friendship or blowing Mindy’s world apart, destroying her and her family.
Whether Elizabeth can deal with the many feelings (good and bad) she has about Ben, her life and her friendships is the main thread through Smoke and it is very well done – especially when it could have been overly emotional. It is why, I think, her story is told in the first person (with alternating chapters telling Mindy’s story and in the third person).
I found myself completely engrossed as the mistakes both women made are gradually revealed and the different perspectives helped show the different sides of their stories. They also had different levels of intensity, which helped make it feel much more real. The fire added intensity too, and – again – a different perspective to what was happening. It was so big and so life threatening that the issues Elizabeth and Ben and Elizabeth and Mindy were having seemed much smaller – something which is true of life I think.
Catherine McKenzie does a great job of bringing it all together. She has a way of drawing her characters so they felt very real to me and didn’t tug on the heartstrings too much (just a bit!). I could feel how conflicted they felt and how difficult the choices they were making were for them. And I could feel the claustrophobia as the fire got closer and smoke was everywhere, the rising panic people felt as the almost inevitability of something it must seem impossible to fight. It added to the tension and was a great catalyst for moving the story and characters forward – making this a great book, one I liked a lot!