A Column of Smoke

A Column of Smoke

Sally, a young ambitious scientist, is building a life she hopes will impress the man she loves, even though she holds little hope of meeting him again. She is passionate about her research on genetically modified crops, but when activists destroy a field trial she is threatened with the loss of both her career and friendships. Her colleagues devise a scheme to salvage the experiment, but Sally must decide whether the end justifies the means. Alongside Sally's relationships with her colleagues and friends, this debut novel explores complex issues surrounding genetically modified (GM) foods.


Author: Rebecca Nesbit
Publisher: Brambleby Books
Year of Publication: 2014
Format and Pages: Paperback, 288pp
ISBN: 9781908241313
Retail Price: £8.99
Our Discount Price: £8.10

Sample text from A Column of Smoke

A policewoman came forward to make the first arrest, and a ripple of booing spread through the crowd. Impervious to the shouts, the policewoman snapped a pair of handcuffs onto a protestor’s wrists. Immediately he began to chant: “Put a stop to GM crops.”

His bare chest was painted with ‘ban GM’ and the skin on his back glistened with sweat. The policewoman began to lead him away; he didn’t struggle but his chanting grew more elaborate. “No GM, protect our wildlife, No GM, save our farmers, No GM…”

Around 20 protesters joined his cries, pushing forward towards the police cordon. Two police horses tossed their heads as banners surrounded them, their faces shielded by plastic riot guards.

“No GM, stop the pollution, No GM…” More of them were swarming in, and another pair of handcuffs was brandished.

Just a few metres away Sally stood transfixed. She knew to move backwards if trouble started, to be away from the field long before the first stone was thrown or pepper spray was first threaten. Let the police protect the crop. But she had forgotten what this kind of excitement could feel like. Her whole body seemed to have woken up from months of interminable writing, proof reading and daytime TV. She glanced at the group of fellow on-lookers, all showing silent support for the modified crop faced with ‘decontamination’, all convinced that genetic modification could be used for good.


Sally was sitting in her room reading when there was a knock on her bedroom door and Mel’s head appeared.

“You busy?”

It was early for Mel to be home, not even 7 o’clock. And she had broken house protocol, the unspoken agreement that rooms were sacred, to be entered by invitation only.

Sally put her book down on her chest of drawers, amidst a pile of jewellery and dust. “Come on in.”

Mel collapsed on Sally’s bed and lay staring at the cobwebs on her ceiling. “You really should clean occasionally you know.”

“I’ve got better things to do, thank you very much. Like ask you what’s up?”

“Maybe the gods wanted me to sympathise with you for once, because I had a bad day at work too.”

“Activists burnt your office down?”

“God, no, that would be the best day of my career so far. Redundancies at the end of the month – eight at risk notices were handed out today.”

“And you were one of them?” Sally suppressed the guilty fear that without Mel’s job they couldn’t pay the rent.

“No I wasn’t.”

“That’s good.”


For the next few weeks Sally led the kind of life she had assumed Vangelis’s lab would provide: business as usual with more progress than setbacks and nothing to keep her awake at night. They broke a centrifuge machine and managed to persuade Vangelis to buy them two new ones. They coaxed Amy through the third results chapter in her thesis. They watched as the trees showed the first signs of autumn.

Mel started her new job and was soon into the same routine of long evenings in the office. Her complaining, at least, had diminished, though she was even more cryptic than normal about what she was working on. Sally hoped that pride wasn’t all that was keeping her from grumbling about this job too.

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Reviews and readers' comments

How refreshing to read a book where scientists are real people! … Nesbit captures the excitement of research, the spirit of those that do it and the terrible things that can happen to people when naked ambition trumps scientific judgement... --Prof. Adam Hart, ecologist, professor of science communication and presenter of BBC s Planet Ant Series.

I enjoyed 'A column of Smoke'. You feel for Sally as she finds herself in a sort of no-man's land in an awkward state of decision in both her relationship and her scientific career. The characters are well thought out and have a depth that emerges throughout the novel as you learn more about them. The science permeates the book and gives a good backdrop for the story as it unfolds; showing the excitement of cutting edge research, but also the mundaneness of the repetitive procedures scientists must go through when collecting their data.... -- Sarah Cox, The Biologist


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