The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

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Lost Memory of Skin

Five words from the blurb: sex offender, trapped, encampment, relationship, past

The Lost Memory of Skin first came to my attention when it was listed as a ‘Book of the Month’ on Amazon. It went on to appear on many ‘Best of 2011’ lists in America and I was drawn to the reviews which described it as bleak, unsettling and powerful. It was released in the UK earlier this year and I bought a copy, hoping I’d love it as much as everyone else. Unfortunately it wasn’t a complete success, but I was impressed by many aspects of this compelling narrative.

The Lost Memory of Skin is controversial, thought provoking and original. It focuses on ‘The Kid’, a twenty-one year old man who has recently been released from prison. As a registered sex offender he must live 2,500 feet away from anywhere children might gather, which, due to the large number of schools and nurseries, means he is restricted to living under a causeway in a makeshift camp with numerous other sex offenders. Here he meets a Professor who is studying the homeless. The two form a strange friendship which develops as they reveal the truth about their pasts to each other.

The beauty of this book is the way it makes the reader feel sorry for sex offenders. It questions the way American society deals with these criminals and points out many failings in the treatment of them. It occasionally felt a little preachy, but I was willing to forgive this as the rants were often thought provoking in nature:

We cast them out, we treat them like pariahs, when in fact we should be studying them close up, sheltering them and protecting them from harm, as if indeed they were fellow human beings who have inexplicably reverted to being chimpanzees or gorillas, and whose genetic identity with us and their shared ancestry with us can teach us what we ourselves are capable of becoming if we don’t reverse or alter the social elements that caused them to abandon a particularly useful set of sexual taboos in the first place.

‘The Kid’ was a fantastic character. He was deeply flawed, but as the book slowly revealed the extent of his crimes I became increasingly attached to him. It was possible to understand the motivations for his actions and feel sympathy for his predicament – a testament to Russell Banks’ skill as an author.

The first half of the book was fantastic (easily a five star read), but unfortunately things went downhill after that. The book started to concentrate on the professor and I found his storyline bizarre. I didn’t have any empathy for him and his story didn’t really fit with the rest of the book. The narrative went off on some weird tangents and I lost interest on several occasions. Luckily the plot eventually reverted to ‘The Kid’ again and the ending was OK.

The sexual subject matter will put off a lot of readers, but anyone with an open mind will find themselves looking at sexual offenders in a new light. Any book that is capable of changing my opinion on a subject deserves high praise and so, despite my reservations about the last half of this book, I can only recommend it.

 


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18 Comments

  1. I had no idea that this story was about sex offenders. It’s hard to imagine feeling sorry for them, so having read that part of your review, I’m every more curious now. Nice review Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, I’m still surprised that I had sympathy for a sex offender, but it shows that a great author can make the reader empathise with anyone, no matter how bad they might be. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.

  2. Mystica says:

    This is a tough subject but it is good that there is someone talking about the way society handles them.

    1. Jackie says:

      Mystica, Yes, very tough subject. I’m pleased he’s brought these issues to the table, but it is a shame this book isn’t being discussed by more people – it deserves a lot more attention.

  3. David says:

    I bought the American edition of this as soon as it came out, but confess I haven’t got around to reading it yet, mainly because the subject matter is putting me off. I should probably just dive in as I’ve loved the other two books I’ve read by Banks (‘Cloudsplitter’ and ‘The Darling’, both 5 star reads for me) and he never shies away from powerful subject matter.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, I haven’t read any of Banks’ other books, but I will do now. I love the way he tackles difficult subject matters and can see from the first half of this book that his others could easily be 5 star reads for me too. I’d be interested to see what yu make of this one so please come back and let me know how you get on.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for this review, the books sounds fascinating. What a tough subject to read about (and write about I would imagine!) I’ll be on the lookout for this.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jennifer, I imagine the research that went into this book must have been difficult/emotional. It is a tough/worthy subject and I hope you enjoy reading this book.

  5. Chinoiseries says:

    The Lost Memory of Skin (which is a beautiful title, by the way) sounds like a difficult but very good book that more people should read. I don’t think that sex offenders in The Netherlands are required to take such extreme measures, but I believe their addresses are listed (or at least their presence in a certain neighbourhood) and many of them have been harassed by angry mobs who felt threatened by them. I can never condone wat they did, but there must be a way to live with them?

    A pity that the second half concentrated on a character that is not as interesting as the first!

    1. Jackie says:

      Chinoiseries, I don’t think that sex offenders in the UK are treated as harshly, but I don’t really know what restrictions are placed on them. I know there are problems in that a 17-year-old having sex with a 15-year-old can end up on the sex offenders register (basically ruining their life) but I don’t know the finer details – I’ll have to read a UK book and find out!

  6. litlove says:

    I was sent a review copy of this and just haven’t got around to it. But your review makes me keen to give it a try. I love books that treat difficult topics with courage and insight.

    1. Jackie says:

      litlove, I’d love to know your thoughts on this one! I don’t think our taste in books overlaps much, but this is a very important subject and I think the writing might be enough to ensure you’re engaged throughout. Enjoy :-)

  7. Jenners says:

    It would take quite a bit of skill to make a sex offender sympathetic. I’m curious.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I hope that you decide to read it – I think you may even enjoy it more than I did.

  8. Athira says:

    I had heard of this one before, but had no idea what it was about. Your review has me really intrigued!

    1. Jackie says:

      Athira, Great news! I hope that you decide to pick it up one day.

  9. I’m intrigued. Years ago someone bought me Russell Banks’ novel “Rule of the Bone”. It took me a couple of attempts to read but when I got into it I really enjoyed it. Sounds like it was a similar but less controversial idea – trying to give a sympathetic but still realistic portrait of a kid living on the streets.

    If the subject matter does interest you, I can recommend Lucy Prebble’s play “The Sugar Syndrome”.

    1. Jackie says:

      Nose in a Book, Thanks for recommending ‘The Sugar Syndrome’ – it sounds really good. I’ve added it to my wishlist :-)

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