My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Initial reaction: Honestly I’m torn as to how to rate this because this was a very tough, raw read, and I need some time to meditate on it to explain my thoughts in full. In short sum, I thought this was a brilliantly told story of a boy who feels guilt over the murder of another – and his powerlessness of being able to do anything about it. Granted, what happens to Jimmy’s character broke my heart, even made me cry, but while I could’ve raged at Ben’s actions, inactions, and thoughts, I felt bad for him knowing he was a kid trapped in his own mind of grief, confusion, and overwhelming sadness in the aftermath of things. It’s a novel that really handled the emotional resonance well for the situations, moralities, and issues it raises.
It’s been a while since a young adult book has blown me away for the subject matter like “The Sin-Eater’s Confession” has. The level of the writing and the honest prose were a few dimensions, but tackling several tough subject matters in the backdrop of prejudice, a coming of age for its levels of grief within a small town really pulled me into the narrative.
This is not a novel that will strike people the same way – it’s rather controversial for the raw edge of what it shows – not just the backdrop of a prejudicial murder, but also for the raw emotion and several gory details that don’t mince words in the portrayal. The story revolves around a young soldier named Ben who fights in Afghanistan and writes a series of letters during his tour.
Ben carries a heavy secret that no one knows, and it all happened in the time that he was home with his parents as a senior in high school. He meets Jimmy, a boy only a bit younger than him, but seeming much younger. The two aren’t friends in Ben’s eyes, but they get along well enough in their brief interactions and he feels protective of the boy and willing to help him.
Then the story starts unraveling a measure of many secrets and unfulfilled promises. Jimmy lives as a closeted gay boy who doesn’t know how to tell others how he’s different and what he truly wants out of life. He makes an attempt to tell Ben, but Ben’s understanding of Jimmy is on shaky ground at best. Then, in the pursuit of aspirations, Jimmy takes a suggestive picture of Ben without his knowledge, submits it for a photography contest which he wins and gets rather notable attention for it.
All heck breaks loose shortly after that. Because Ben lives in a small town prejudiced against anyone gay or insinuated to be gay, and there are some rather strong assertions by people in both Ben’s and Jimmy’s circles on the matter hurling accusations at both boys. Jimmy’s father and priest ban Ben from visiting the boy because they think he’s a “bad influence” on Jimmy (and Ben’s upset about it). Even more, Ben distances himself from Jimmy in the wake of the controversy – not just for the betrayal of taking the picture without his knowledge, but for the implications it has on his own sexuality and he’s not sure what to do with it. Jimmy’s confused and desperate to have a friend and Ben’s the only person it seems who can help him, but Ben doesn’t act on his conscience until the very last possible moment.
And then the inexplicable happens.
This book made me misty-eyed on a number of levels. What happened to Jimmy, how Ben confronts the weight of his actions before the incident, his inactions during, and his grief in the aftermath which stacks one, after the other, after the other in bargaining. In Ben’s words, there are a lot of “shoulda, coulda, woulda” considerations.
What struck me was the raw emotional grief and honest dialogue that occurs in this entire narrative – both in the shaping of Jimmy’s experiences as well as Ben’s. It doesn’t stray from talking about the tough emotions – the before, during, and aftermath of events even as Ben’s recalling this confession years after it happened. It’s a grief story, probably even more than it is a murder mystery (though that’s a significant part of it), and I’ll admit that I struggled to find words to put to how to best explain why I liked the narrative in this book so much.
I know this is a book that will divide people for the portrayal, and there are many morality and grief prompts it raises, but I have to say that Bick’s writing of this was very mature, raw, and doesn’t pull its respective punches with emotional resonances. It’s a story that hurts, and has dimensions in the weight it carries for all the characters it portrays in this narrative. It gets one thinking about several measures it raises, and most of you who know my reading tastes know that if a book gets me thinking about things long after I’ve turned the final page, that’s a sign of a good read for me. Granted, there were many times I wanted to throttle Ben, asking why he thought the way he did and why he didn’t act, but at the same time, I understood his emotional confusion, constant self-blaming, cyclical spiral of inaction and internal debate as the narrative went on.
It’s hard for me to say that I liked or loved this book in itself because it left me sucker punched and drained when it was over, especially because it ends on a note that leaves you in suspense as to what occurs in the extension of things. At the same time, I don’t know if there was another ending that could’ve better punctuated the tone this took on – a constant mental bargaining that peppered the thematic of this entire narrative. I would recommend reading it if only on the measure it’ll get people talking about the measures contained within it, and while it may not strike some the same way in terms of how they personally connect with the character(s)/situations within, it will start a constructive dialogue that will have one thinking about the weight of identity, morality, and grief after turning the last page.
Overall score: 4.5/5