I am not lost…

February 4, 2014

Book Review – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

This is the fourth in a four-part series where you get to see the reviews I sent my MFA mentor during my second semester. I have chosen not to go through an edit the reviews in any way, despite the fact that I am posting these after I’ve received feedback from my mentor. So you’ll see it the same way you see all my reviews – essentially unedited.

The concept of a person being so wrapped up in the dichotomy of good and evil that they forget to notice which side of the line they are on is intriguing. The balance of light and dark is prevalent in literature – from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Jekyll and Hyde, to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. Few authors come at it from exactly the same tack. James Hogg takes a two-sided approach to his take on the tale, executing it in Princess Bride fashion.

The first half of the book is backstory, as told by an “editor”. It walks through the life of two young men, beginning with their parents’ histories and going until deep into the young adulthood of the younger child. A classic tale of two made to married when love is not present, the lord of the house sends away his wife for a lover – as the wife in turn finds solace in religion and the local priest. The wife bears two children – the elder acknowledged as the heir to the lord’s estate, the younger shunned, taken in by his mother and the priest. The boys grow up apart, not knowing each other. The beginning story follows the older boy – where this devil of a younger brother continually appears, seeming bound and determined to make his life miserable. Each time he tries to send his brother away, the latter becomes more determined to appear, and equally sure to cause havoc. This leads to a fight where the older brother is killed fighting with the younger and a dark companion he has picked up. The younger brother continues on a series of disturbing and irrational behaviors, with his “friend”, and is eventually accosted by two women and dragged away – said “friend” abandoning him with a grin.

The rest is told from the first-person perspective of the younger brother, and chronicles the events prior from the viewpoint of his life, and what he believed he was doing. The two do not match perfectly – as many of the events that we see him in, he could not be there or actively wasn’t. The younger brother lives to his foster father’s standard, a well-meaning man of God and faith. The “dark stranger” we are introduced to as a staunch believer in the faith, and someone that wishes only to speak with the younger man and discuss theology. As the two talk more, the reader sees the brother fall further and further from a pious life, though he is set to believe that he is walking the most righteous path possible. As time progresses, however, he begins to learn the error of his ways – but now cannot escape this stranger and his war of virtue on all those that he – and assumedly, they – believe have wronged the brother. The last fourth of the book he spends running away from the stranger and his blood thirst, only to be faced with himself as the final sacrifice. The books ends on an editor’s epilogue, wondering how much of the man’s tale is fiction, and how much real.

While the concept of the book is good, the execution leaves something to be desired. It was a back and forth battle, determining whether or not the entirety of the first half of the book was necessary. The lead-up with the brothers’ background, and allowing the reader to know where the relationships all came from – this is useful and important. However, the in-depth nature of it left me feeling lost and confused. It was not helpful either that aside from a throw-away heading at the beginning, there was no indication that this was not told from the perspective of a person in the narrative, and rather from an outside force. When finally that was made clear, it was easier to accept the background. However, it stings of telling, rather than showing, and making everything almost too facile for the reader. It does not allow for one to come to conclusions on one’s own.

The second half of the book is infinitely more interesting and well-written; the younger brother is an entertaining narrator, if entirely unreliable. The relationship between himself and the dark stranger – rather clearly insinuated to be Lucifer – is believable, and the fall from glory from beginning to end is captivating. You want to be able to dismiss him, but he spends the entire book in such firm belief that he is doing the work of God that you cannot help but feel pity for him. As he reaches his revelation, it is oddly simple to wish him well into the afterlife. Unfortunately, the length of the book and the time it takes to reach this revelation steals from the power of the book, leaving the reader unsatisfied.

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