White Smoke is a socially-conscious YA horror/thriller by Tiffany D. Jackson. The main character, Marigold, is a teenager in a blended family of five who has recently moved to what should be a great opportunity for her mother: 3 years of rent-free living in a recently-restored home, in exchange for a big writing project. The foundation behind this is renovating a whole neighborhood of homes for creatives, in the hopes of rebuilding a community that has lost so many people to the enormous prison nearby.
The family is adjusting to not only the house, but also to the domestic dynamics that are still relatively new. Odd things begin happening within the home and outside of it, as you would expect from a book that is pitched as The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out. On top of it, Marigold is dealing with personal anxieties, including a fear of bedbugs. As the pace of the story plunges forward, her anxiety intensifies. (Spoiler alert: so did mine.)
This book is categorized as a horror-thriller by readers on Goodreads, which makes sense because it is the perfect blend of both genres. In the horror genre, there’s something about a classic haunted house story that requires letting things simmer as needed. The atmosphere needs to be just right for the intensity to build. Thriller books traditionally pack break-neck jumpscares and plot twists pretty often. Jackson balances both expertly throughout the story.
White Smoke touches on multiple societal problems and inequities: the racist criminalization of Black communities, poverty, the broken justice system, corruption, unjust laws, and gentrification, to name a few. The setting of this story, an abandoned-looking town with deteriorating buildings and half-burned homes, works as a suitable backdrop for all these issues to fester.
Mental health is an echoing thread, with constant reminders of the main character’s intrusive thoughts and overall anxiety. While I am not an expert on this subject, I think Jackson handles these discussions well.
My only issue with the book was the ending. On the page it felt abrupt, but it is impactful as a final image, and in my opinion would translate perfectly to the screen. I would love to see an adaptation of this book.
At the heart of White Smoke is a monster. As readers, we have access to the experience of unraveling the layers of story and ultimately deciding what, or who, we think the monster truly is. If you’re a fan of unsettling stories, complex characters, and social commentary that works well, White Smoke would make a great addition to your TBR.