Review: Smoke by Nigel Bird

Chris Leek
Independent Reviewer

It’s high time we grabbed a fist full of Brit grit or should I say Scots grit, either way you won’t find much out there that’s grittier than Nigel Bird's Smoke.
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This critically acclaimed novella first arrived on to the scene in 2011 and promptly made the short list for a Spinetingler award. More recently Smoke has been given a tune-up and a fresh set of clothes and now resides with a new publisher, Blasted Heath Press.

The council estates of Tranent with their decaying social housing, inherent poverty and small time thugs are hard places to grow up in. Jimmy and Carlo know that only too well; so do the Ramsey Brothers, but they’re part of what makes living here so tough.
Jimmy should really be in school, but he’s got other things on his mind like getting even with the bully who humiliated him. Carlo is just out of hospital; his main aim is to win back his girlfriend, and although revenge is also high on his list it won’t be easy task for a man now confined to wheelchair. Meanwhile the Ramsey boys have some ambitious plans of their own and are looking to pay for them with the blood stained winnings from a vicious dog fighting competition.

Smoke doesn’t pull its punches; on the cover Ian Rankin describes it as ‘grim, but really good’. I won’t argue. Nigel Bird takes his readers to some dark places, but there is also beauty in this harsh reality. The twin narratives of Jimmy and Carlo weave through the story like sparing boxers, ducking and diving before closing on each other as bell sounds for the brutal final round. Rarely have I come across an author who writes with such humanity and feeling for the people he creates. In Smoke you find a wealth of wonderfully developed and compelling characters that remain with you long after the story is done.
Above all I loved the sulking malcontent of Tranent and its supporting cast of desperate, disillusioned residents. My youth was misspent on more forgiving streets than these, but I found a heady nostalgia lurking in the town’s Ford Capris and steamy chip shops. I hope I’m not doing the author a massive disservice by assuming that we must be of a similar age.

Few have the skill set required to write as well as Nigel Bird. If you want to see how one of the best from this side of the pond does it, then get yourself 20 Regal from Eddie’s Ice cream van and suck down a lung full of Smoke.

 Do ya ken whit ah mean?