REVIEW: One For Sorrow (Christopher Barzak)

oneforsorrowWhen I came across this online, I pigeon-holed it (immediately and unfairly–I really must learn not to do this) as a kind of ‘gay Lovely Bones‘. It’s not, not at all, except in the most superficial way; what it is, is exactly the novel I really wanted to read when I read The Lovely Bones back when I was seventeen.

Adam McCormick is a quiet, background kid in his school; his father is mid-level distant and angry, his older brother is a perma-stoned arsehole, and his mother, recently paralysed in a car accident, has become best friends with the drink driver who put her in her wheelchair. On top of these fraught beginnings, a kid at Adam’s school, who he’s had a fleeting connection with–Jamie Marks–has been murdered. The thing is, in Barzak-world, the dead aren’t quite gone: welcome to the hinterland between life and death where Jamie’s ghost appears to Adam–and Gracie, the girl who found him. He burns his memories to keep himself attached to the land of the living, and Adam finds himself drawn further into the darkness with Jamie; people’s shadows give away their secrets, skinless men haunt the spaces behind empty doors and Adam’s slowly losing touch with his body.

My summing up is significantly more artless and clumsy than the novel itself: Barzak has a superb, jealousy-inducing way with words. Whilst never becoming over-complex or literary-up-the-wazoo, there are frequent beautifully worded moments that cut sharply through the ephemera to the beating emotional heart inside (the line that still sticks in my head is Adam, worrying that he will be recognised by his classmates, remarking that it was unfounded, as they had trouble recognising even themselves at that age.) It’s the last time I’ll mention Lovely Bones as I can imagine it is only too irritating to be constantly linked to another novel only by virtue of it’s fame, but One For Sorrow dispenses with The Lovely Bones saccharine heaven and throws Adam, and us, headlong into a chilling half-world, playing with genuine horror at times (the skinless men… my god…)

I could go on and on dissecting the novel–the spot-on knife-edge balance between darkness and melodrama, the three-dimensional sketching of Adam’s mother and father, Frances and the other ghosts, the incredibly subtle painting of the gay romance (if only half the rest of gay-lit knew how to do it like that.) In the end, there are only two things I’ll mention, and they’re both ‘wishes’ about the novel.

The first ‘wish’ was the ending: a testament to the superb, glamorous murk of Adam venturing into Jamie’s world of the dead, his estrangement from his family, my complete immersement in his point of view that when he returned back to the lights of his town, and the door of his family home… I really didn’t bloody want him to. Go back! Go back to the ghosts and the dark! Go back and follow Jamie across the bridge.

The second ‘wish’ is straightforward. I wish I had this novel when I was sixteen, because, although I didn’t climb in any graves, or travel through dead space, or run away from home, and the shadows of people didn’t growl their secrets at me, this was how being a teenager felt (especially a gay teenager, though I’m underlining that is not the major part of the novel). I’m not sure I can word it right, but that feeling (being sixteen, and this novel) is something like the heightened sense of yourself (or Adam) being the only light in a confusing gloom shot through with all the mythology and crazy dreams of adolescence.

Something like that. For precisely the reason that that previous sentence is really underwhelming, you should go read One For Sorrow and see it done properly. Recommended, recommended, recommended.


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