Tuesday, May 27, 2008

One For Sorrow

One For Sorrow, by Chris Barzak. Bantam, 2007.

Barzak's One For Sorrow is part ghost-story, part urban fantasy, and part noirish coming-of-age tale set in an industrial town where everyone knows everyone. The protagonist, Adam, chafes against his unsympathetic family, including his disabled mother, emotionally vacant father, and stupidly nasty older brother. All this changes when Adam, who has always been a runner, finds himself running towards the ghost of a murdered boy: Jamie Marks.

Most novels with adolescent protagonists are about the details of their character's lives, but One For Sorrow is actually about Adam's journey towards death. The more time he spends with Jamie's phantom, the less real and substantial he becomes. As he discovers 'dead space' and learns how to make himself invisible in more ways than one, Adam also begins to lose all five of his senses. He also begins to fall in love not only with Jamie, but with the idea of Jamie's incorporeality. He wants to become a ghost himself.

One For Sorrow might have become a YA cautionary tale--stay alive! stay away from queer ghosts!--but Barzak is careful to place Adam at the nexus of many different possibilities, all of them interesting and none of them especially 'right.' I found myself quite enamoured with the idea of Adam learning about sex and desire from a living girl and a dead boy at the same time. Barzak never draws any hard and fast lines around Adam's nascent sexuality, but some of the eerily romantic scenes between Adam and Jamie are charged with a dark and sensate eroticism that makes us wonder if we aren't all, after a fashion, in love with our own ghosts? Barzak is also careful not to inject too much creative bells and whistles into the realm of the dead, preferring instead to give us subtle and evocative images of half-seen things and shrouded faces.

Surprisingly, the book does drag a little near the end rather than in the middle, as Adam becomes less alive and Jamie begins to fade further away. Parts of the church interlude didn't seem entirely necessary, and when the book ends, it ends in a flash, leaving you wondering what happened to some of the nastier peripheral characters that you'd been pleasantly hating for the last 200 pages. That said, however, the last few scenes were lovely to read.

One For Sorrow is a slim, elegant, and darkly satisfying book, and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for something melancholy but also sweet and heartening to read. Can't wait for Barzak's next book!

Buy it from Amazon

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