Posted by: Corri van de Stege | August 7, 2007

Sunday reading: In Search of Adam

Sunday was a beautiful day and I decided not to look at e-mails, reports, computers or work rooms but take one book of my pile and go outside with it.  In fact I took some three with me, one a book on ‘reading as a writer’ , another was Samarkand, on my list of travel books, and the third one was Caroline Smailes ‘In Search of Adam’.  I started reading, and continued reading and then could not stop and had to finish it, finished it and sat gobsmacked and could not immediately find the words to describe what I thought of it, why it was so different and what made it such an extraordinary reading experience. 

I cannot really count this book as one of my travel books, even though I tried on my list (see my page above on the Armchair Traveller Challenge) and implied it would be about the north of England.  Yes, it is and it isn’t.  It all takes place on an estate in a coastal town in the north of England, with a very short prelude (only revealed half way through the book) in a council flat on the 11th floor in Newcastle.  But it’s not about that, the story could have been set on any estate, anywhere in England, only the dialect, which depicts the setting and place, would have changed.

The style of the book is measured, using short sentences that haunt and will keep you pinned down, they show so much.  Individual words and phrases, sometimes repeated, will show you a whole world, moving from the child’s point of view to that of the young adult.  they won’t let go of you, keep you with her, betrayed by everything and everyone and never giving up the search, not even at the end.  They show us the dismal new neighborhood, where all houses are the same, children and grown ups locked together in a small and claustrophobic existence, where cries for help go unnoticed. 

According to my book on reading as a writer, it’s not complexity or decoration that matters, but rather intelligibility, grace and the fact that the sentence should strike us as the perfect vehicle for expressing what it aims to express.  Caroline Smailes uses sentences that suit her story, the unbearable desperation of a child for whom there is no way out, never will be, trapped on that estate and with her family and her neighbours.  The sentences express an indictment of the shallowness and cruelty that can take over lives lived in moral poverty.  I also felt that the style helped to express a disbelief that these things in fact happen and that through phrases and repeated expressions we are convinced that, yes, these things do happen and the world finds an excuse for it: big girls don’t cry and  a reet strange bairn… 

I started this book feeling slightly doubtful about whether I wanted to know this, so graphic, so direct, so very uncomfortable.  And then I was drawn into this search, drawn on by the plot, by the style and the way it showed me how and where and what took place. 

A great book, and I can recommend it. 



  1. It sounds like the short and crisp sentences of this book has a tremendous staying power that will make a good vacation book. I’m putting a (short) reading list together for Hawaii.

  2. Yes, Matt, definitely worth reading. Enjoy Hawaii!

  3. […] up to one of the most amazing first novels that I came across in 2008: yes, In search of Adam.  I wrote about it in the summer, when one Sunday afternoon I started reading and could not stop until I had […]

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