Sin-Eater’s Confession

I don’t have all the answers to what happened back home, or why people did what they did, or, more to the point, why I didn’t do what I should’ve.

sineatersconfessionThe Sin-Eater’s Confession by Ilsa J. Bick is a novel about truth and rumors and the murky area between the two. The book opens with a young man named Ben who writes down his story while he’s stationed in Afghanistan as a medic. In folklore, a sin-eater is “a man who (according to a former practice in England) for a small gratuity ate a piece of bread laid on the chest of a dead person, whereby he was supposed to have taken the sins of the dead person upon himself.” Now to me, that makes it sound like you could be a dark soul who while living enjoyed torturing small children and setting houses on fire, but as long as you died and some poor schmoe was around to absolve you of all sins your slate was wiped clean. 

Ben starts his story as a high school senior who has more than enough on his plate. His mother is constantly on his case to apply to dozens of colleges and he volunteers at the local emergency room just because his mom thinks it’ll look great on his college application. During the summer, another senior, Del, is killed by a drunk driver. Ben volunteers to help Del’s family on their farm, befriending his younger brother Jimmy. 

Del was a high school jock but his brother Jimmy is a timid kid who is verbally abused by his father. Jimmy’s father can’t seem to stand the sight of him since Del died. Ben feels sorry for Jimmy but doesn’t really know what to do. Jimmy confides to Ben that he wants to be a photographer. Ben tells him that he doesn’t want to be a doctor but wants to be a writer. They’re just two dudes talking, imagining the lives they’ll one day lead.

One day while taking a break under an unforgiving sun, Jimmy begins to tell Ben something. He can’t quite get the secret out of his mouth and Ben becomes uneasy because he thinks he already knows what that secret might be:

It’s terrible and huge and awesome all at the same time that I am dying to let out-and only to you. Because only you will understand. Only you matter. If I tell, maybe everything changes-and not for the good. And I don’t know if I can bear that.

When school starts there’s no time for Ben to help Jimmy on his family’s farm. He hates to admit it but he kind of forgets about Jimmy, forgets that he told him he’d be there for him if he ever needed a friend.

Rumors begin to fly when a picture of Ben shows up in a magazine. The picture is fairly innocent: Ben lying in the sun after hours of hard work, unaware of the camera. Jimmy had taken his photograph and entered it into a contest and won. Everybody’s talking about the picture. Jimmy must be gay. He took a picture of a shirtless Ben resting against a bale of hay. Ben must be gay too. It’s obvious.

But is it really? 

Ben begins to question himself. He’s never had a girlfriend but is that because he’s so busy volunteering, getting a 4.0 in school, applying to the most prestigious colleges that there’s no time for a girlfriend? Or does he keep himself busy because he doesn’t want to question himself too closely? 

Somehow Ben gets painted as the bad guy. Jimmy’s father doesn’t want him around because he thinks he’s a bad influence on his son. The photograph must have been Ben’s idea. The Christian coffee shop where Jimmy buses tables treats Ben like he’s something rotten they stepped in. 

Ben’s small and orderly world begins to spin-off its axis as the rumors grow teeth. All his life Ben has been pushed to be the best by his mother. She can’t have a simple conversation with him without asking if he’s written an essay for his Yale admission.  Little by little he’s admitting to himself that his life isn’t his own.

He decides to talk to Jimmy, this time without the evil eye from the coffee shop owners and the creepy pastor that seems to have a fierce hold on Jimmy’s family. He sees Jimmy behind the coffee shop, hears low murmuring voices and then a loud “No!” He watches as Jimmy gets into a car with someone he can’t quite make out and follows them for what seems like forever. The car finally pulls into a state park. What happens next shapes Ben’s and Jimmy’s lives forever.

There is no moral lesson in this book. There are no answers. But that’s how life is. Would I really be there for someone if they needed me or is that something I just say to make someone feel better? Do I keep myself busy because I can’t figure out who or what I want in my life? 

Can I count on myself to know what’s best for me? Barely. Will I sometimes get swept up in gossip and rumors? Most certainly. Will I be a strong enough person to find out the truth behind rumors and gossip? I hope so.

The Sin-Eater’s Confession did what it intended to do: it promised there’d be no answers to any questions. But it told a familiar story, one that we all face day-to-day. Who am I, really? Am I what I want to be or do I play a different role to make others happy?

There are no answers here.


Drowning Instinct

Word to the wise: if you want to avoid going to the loony bin, put all sharp objects out of reach. Also stay out of the way of your psychopath father and drunken mother. Ilsa J Bick’s Drowning Instinct is chock full of all of this and more. 

Holy cow is it.

Jenna Lord is in a lot of pain, both physically and mentally:

They think they’re doing you this big favor keeping you going because you’ve got your whole life ahead.  Because you think there’s only one kind of pain?  That pain is pain is pain?

Uh, that would be a no.

When the novel opens, Jenna has just finished a stint in a mental facility for help with self-harm and spends her days being home-schooled. Months later she knows she’s not healed from the compulsion to harm. She knows that it might always be there, lurking and prodding her to act. She has only herself to count on since her brother enlisted in the service and was sent to Afghanistan. He was her protector from a raging father and an alcoholic mother, a woman who has dark tendencies no one would suspect. 

Jenna’s brother Matthew saved her from a house fire that burned much of her back and required skin grafts from her thighs. This bonded them more than a regular sibling relationship. She’s determined to stay close to him and has to email him on the sly, creating an email account her parents can’t find out about. They disowned Matthew when he enlisted and if they find out Jenna is still talking to him, well, there goes the computer and any further “us against them” bonding between siblings.

Jenna gets a chance to start all over again at a new school where there are the usual stuck up girls applying three coats of lip-gloss in the bathroom while trashing every dweeb, geek, and yes, the troubled new kid. The worst is Danielle, the über stuck up pretty girl who especially seems to have it out for Jenna.   

Jenna tends to avoid contact with anyone and seeks solace in the library. But before she can go any further into herself she meets Mr. Anderson, her chemistry teacher and track coach. He takes an interest in her. Now, wait. I know what that sounds like: “takes an interest in her”. Creepy and very Mary K. Letourneau

But he encourages her to join the cross-country team, makes her his assistant in his lab and eventually (to Jenna’s horror) sees how her home life is unfolding like a Hefty bag with an amputated arm inside. He invites her into his life and home where Jenna sees picture after picture of a woman in various stages of pregnancy. She’s Mr. Anderson’s never seen wife. When questioned, he says that they are estranged and she’s in Wisconsin taking care of her sick father.

Mr. Anderson makes her forget about hurting herself. He helps her to see she’s more than damaged goods.

But he has his own secrets. Where is his wife? Where is his child? Why did Danielle say to Jenna that Mr. Anderson liked “the broken ones”? Did something happen between him and Danielle? Does he see Jenna simply as someone beyond repair that he pities?

Just when you think you’ve figured out what’s going on, Ilsa J. Bick’s Drowning Instinct throws in a whopping slap of events that are both unnerving and enthralling.

I’m still unnerved.