Thursday, November 3, 2011

Review: One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak

One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak
Published: Bantam Spectra, 2007

The Book:

Adam McCormick had just turned fifteen when the body was found in the woods. It is the beginning of an autumn that will change his life forever. Jamie Marks was a boy a lot like Adam, a boy no one paid much attention to-a boy almost no one would truly miss. And for the first time, Adam feels he has a purpose. Now, more than ever, Jamie needs a friend.

But the longer Adam holds on to Jamie’s ghost, the longer he keeps his friend tethered to a world where he no longer belongs…and the weaker Adam’s own ties to the living become. Now, to find his way back, Adam must learn for himself what it truly means to be alive.”

One for Sorrow is Christopher Barzak’s debut novel.  Despite some fairly explicit sexual/erotic content, I would call it a young adult novel.  The whole story is built around a 15-year-old boy coming to terms with the world and his place in it.

My Thoughts:

What struck me the most about One for Sorrow was the feeling of authenticity of the 15-year-old first person narrator, Adam. I felt that Adam’s voice worked well to communicate his confusion, teen angst, and his ongoing state of mind. This is also the first novel I’ve ever read that actually used txt speak, though it appeared rarely enough not to be irritating. Overall, I felt that the narration style was very effective in pulling you into the mind of the young protagonist.   

The downside of Adam’s first person point of view is that he was often incapable of providing much insight into his own actions.  Adam had poor impulse control, and he sometimes seemed genuinely confused, afterward, about the decisions he had made.  Adam was trapped in a pretty difficult home life, but he didn’t have the experience or wisdom to find a way to make it better.  I prefer Adam’s portrayal to that of an unrealistically precocious teen, but it still got a little irritating when he was consistently unable to consider the consequences of many of his actions.

Arguably due to Adam’s own confusion and lack of focus, the plot of the story seemed to meander almost aimlessly.  On one hand, I liked that I wasn’t sure exactly where the story was heading.  I enjoy reading books that don’t follow traditional formulas, so the unusual flow of the plot kept me hooked.  On the other hand, I felt like the end of the journey was a little too convenient and somehow unexpectedly predictable.  A few questions are left unanswered, but I felt like most of the resolution was just handed to the protagonist. Given how the story had wandered around until the end, I did not expect everything to be wrapped up so neatly.

I was pretty intrigued by the possibility of reading this story both as a fantasy or as a trip into a traumatized teenager’s mind.  Though I felt the story leaned towards seeing the ghost world as literally true, one could also read the story as Adam’s perceptions after a very difficult period in his life.  Honestly, I preferred thinking of Adam’s friendship with Jamie Marks and his time in ‘dead space’ as expressions of his own attempts to cope with or abandon reality. Considering how easily Adam took his intimate ghost friendship—and other brushes with the supernatural—in stride, it seems likely to me that these things might not have actually been real.  If Jamie was not a product of Adam’s own mind, it seems that Adam should have had at least some minor issues with accepting his existence and their relationship.

Whether Jamie’s ghost existed or not, Barzak had an interesting take on the supernatural and the afterlife.   From the ghosts and their dead world, to listening to people’s shadows, to folk superstition like the counting crows rhyme, there was a lot to enjoy. Either way, this ghost story is less about ghostly spookiness and more about a young teenager trying to make sense of a difficult world. 

My Rating: 3.5/5

One for Sorrow is an interesting debut novel. One of the strengths of the book is the narrative voice, which seemed to be a very authentic representation of a 15-year-old boy.  While it has some elements of a ghost story and a murder mystery, the novel mainly chronicled Adam’s attempts to make sense of his life and his world.  The plot seemed a little too aimless at times and the ending seemed a little too pat.  However, I was impressed with the creativity of the supernatural elements, and I enjoyed how unpredictable much of the story felt.  


  1. I haven't read this book yet, but I did enjoy "The Love We Share Without Knowing." The latter is very rich narrative, and it totally blew me away. I must find the time to read "Sorrow" as well.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I think I may have to bump "The Love We Share Without Knowing" up on my list of books to read. I hope you enjoy "Sorrow"!

    It's interesting that "Love We Share" is described on Amazon as a "Murakamiesque jewel box of intertwined narratives". "Sorrow" also reminded me of certain things from Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore".

  3. After "Love" I read Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore". It also blew me away. And yes, I do think Barzak has read Murakami extensively.