... a way of seeing a world which has been stripped bare of all its blurring comforts and made very, very clear -- a seared vision which poured a strange, black light into all its corners and showed you, at last, how much of a balancing act it all was, and had always been -- how you rolled forward through time, faster and faster, until you came to the precipice which you knew was ahead somewhere but never saw until it was too late ... (p.208)
Mark is 11 years old, and has just moved with his mother and stepfather to Brighton. Mark, rejected by his father, does not like his stepfather, David, and has developed a repertoire of brattish behaviour. His mother, meanwhile, is dying quietly on the sofa. (Cancer? I don't think it's ever stated.) His mother's illness is presumably the reason why Mark, unlike the other kids his age, is not in school.
Mark spends a lot of time falling off his skateboard on the seafront. One day, he encounters the other inhabitant of David's house, an old lady who lives in the basement flat. She unlocks a door in her flat to reveal a dark, dank maze of rooms, the original servants' quarters: and something happens to time when Mark's in there, because he sees (and is seen by) the servants.
The Servants is full of intimations of mortality: the decay of the West Pier, the sense of Brighton simply stopping at the beach rather than going on 'forever' like London, and Mark's mother lying on the sofa, more ill than Mark realises. But then, he only gradually comes to see her (and David) as people in their own right. Once he starts to understand that, he begins to understand what the house, the servants, the filth and decay in the kitchen downstairs are for.
There's a strong, significant thread of images and scenes focussed on food. The theme of eating, the family eating together, finishing a meal resolves on the beach. The food and drink that matters to Mark is what he finds or chooses for himself -- and what he chooses to share. And it's no accident that the kitchen of David's house is where the first fleck of blackness appears. Nobody cooks in that house -- not upstairs, anyway.
I'm still undecided about this novel. For one thing, I don't know who it's aimed at. (Presumably not Michael Marshall Smith's science fiction audience, or Michael Marshall's thriller audience. It's been spotted in bookshops under 'horror', 'sf' and 'children's'.) It could be for children, though there are some dark themes: it could be for a YA audience: it could be for a mature audience. The central conceit, and its mechanism, are never really explained: the old lady is never named: when the servants and the real world seem to collide, what's happening?
But there are some glorious images and wry similes (the Odeon 'looked as though it had been built in the dark by someone who didn't like buildings very much'). There is a scene on the beach that brought tears to my eyes; there's a sequence of time-slip images of Brighton that sparked my sense of wonder. And on a personal note, this novel brought some deep-hidden memories and emotions to mind: my mother was dangerously ill when I was ten, and I found Mark's incomprehension, anger and resentment utterly credible.