Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: "Lost Memory of Skin" by Russell Banks

It takes a talented author to make a sympathetic character out of one who has done something odious, but Russell Banks succeeds in his new book, Lost Memory of Skin. Sadly, other aspects of the book didn't fare quite as well.

The Kid is a 21-year-old, socially awkward misfit on probation from his conviction as a sex offender, after an attempt to meet an underage girl goes awry. Unable to live less than 2,500 feet from anywhere children might gather, he lives in a tent under a South Florida causeway, in the company of a number of others who have committed similar and worse crimes. He knows what he did was wrong and truly wants to start anew, but can't seem to catch a break either keeping a menial job or a place to live. One day he encounters the Professor, a larger-than-life man (physically and figuratively) who believes the Kid will be an excellent resource for his studies on homelessness and sex offenders. In exchange for sharing his experiences, the Professor takes Kid under his wing and provides some assistance. But the Professor is a man with a number of his own secrets, and when those are revealed, the balance of power between the two shifts. Ultimately, this is a book about the importance of trusting yourself, and how difficult it is to trust others until you can master that skill.

With Kid and the Professor, Banks created very unique characters, characters with whom you certainly can't identify but at times can't help rooting for them. While the general thread of the plot is compelling, the story takes a very unnecessary turn after the Professor's secrets are revealed, and I really felt that twist undercut the story. And at times, Banks spent far too much time dwelling on Florida history and the Bible, which distracted from the actual characters you want to follow. A truly prolific writer, Banks has written two of my favorite books—The Sweet Hereafter and The Rule of the Bone, but I felt he tried a little too hard with this book. His writing, however, is still something to behold, so I'd encourage you to pick up one of his earlier books if you've never read him before.

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