My general guideline for awarding 5 stars is that the book is either an outstanding read, with very few irritants, or a very good read with inimitable content. In this case, I think the latter is the criterion. At times, this book is brilliant.
The backdrop is the American Dream going sour for a working
class man, as a boy neglected and impoverished, now locked
into a routine of unremitting toil. The escalators, his dreams and the metaphor of his life, lead downwards. Social mobility in contemporary America is seen for what it is, almost an impossibility for those children who slip through the social net.
And yet the novel raises the question of personal choice. Jason suffers from the inertia of having a job that allows him to subsist but not to live. Love is a series of opportunities to be uncovered and acted on, or ignored or lost. Here, the author's characterisation of Jason comes into its own, the angry but morally upright, the occasionally vociferous but considerate, sweatshop cook. He is dominated by his upbringing and circumstances, yet tries to avoid visiting his limitations on others, sometimes succeeding and dramatically failing.
Depression is another theme of the story, with the drift towards suicide. Jason's untidy flat is not mere sloppiness. The escalators continue downwards.
The author chooses to write in the voice of the American working class, making it easier to immerse the reader into the language of her characters. There is strong language but this is not overdone. There are times when the author's writing style works against her. At some points, she over-writes, especially during the visits to Lydia's and Jason's families; succinct exchanges are generally more effective. Also, almost against the principle of presenting novels, the first chapter seems particularly weedy. The book
can be difficult to read, but the effort is well worth it.
The characterisation, interweaving of social themes and the book's general ability to provoke thought, is something close to literary fiction. I suppose the language that offers verisimilitude and the occasional weaknesses in style detract from this, but as a dark romance with profound meaning, as well as intriguing twists and turns,
this book offers a lot.
Sympathy for the Devil
This is a psychological crime novel, 'whydunnit' as much as anything else, but with some exciting plot twists and, while pleasingly tightly written, with sufficient detail to hold the attention of readers of high quality fiction as well as of page-turning thrillers.
My general criteria for a five star rating are either that the book is superbly written with few irritants or very well-written with lots to say. This book lies mainly in the former category as a brilliantly written book, although there are enough ideas to nudge the review towards the latter category in addition.
The author avoids the usual deterministic view of the damaged criminal, in favour of a more existential villain. Like Raskolnikov, he of Crime and Punishment fame, our villain is similar in his revolving like a moth around the investigator's flame, without his air of superiority being held as philosophically as Dostoyevsky's antihero.
Like the Russian killer, a mixture of the noble and the manipulative is part of the killer's constitution, with the possibility of redemption in the wings. It is left to the reader in the end to decide on the likelihood of this, and the opportunities available to a man who has condemned himself to the confusion of love with lust, power with submission to the forces of perverted sex.
This is essentially crime fiction, so the reader of literary fiction must be warned that there is a lot of violent sex. I am reminded of Orwell's answer to the conundrum of Salvador Dali's art as works of genius or disgusting; both, sayeth Orwell. For what it's worth, this reviewer is generally a reader of literary fiction rather than the crime genre, but this story beats Thomas Harris with ease. The killer is neither ordinary barring his crimes, nor is he super-controlled. Again, Raskolnikov comes to mind more than one of these cardboard villains.
A page-turner of some considerable quality.