Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Re-Kindling Interest: Sineater by Elizabeth Massie

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print novels that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

Author Elizabeth Massie's debut novel is like nothing I've ever read, and yet it is familiar enough to not be too challenging to the average genre reader. Winner of the Bram Stoker Award for first novel, Sineater utilizes the popular Southern gothic style to expound on a little-known legend in a highly imaginative manner.

When residents of the small town of Ellison die, their friends and family place small meals on the chests of the deceased. Joel Barker's father, Avery, then comes out of the woods -- where he has been relegated to live during the day -- and eats the food, symbolically devouring the sins of the deceased and allowing their souls to ascend to heaven.

Legend has it that peering into the eyes of the "sineater" -- even via a photograph -- will cause the looker to view all of the sin that has been eaten, and subsequently either go crazy or simply die from the shock. Therefore, due to their connection with one who is perceived unclean, all of the Barkers are ostracized from the rest of the town, especially by Ellison's resident spiritual mother: Missy Campbell.

But all this is merely background to understand the core story of Sineater: Joel's coming of age. Joel is an outcast trying to fight his way in, while everyone else, including the other members of his family, are doing their best to keep him out. And someone is invested enough in the Barkers' outcast status to begin a regimen of "punishments."

Luckily for Joel, there are a few townspeople who are brave and caring enough to ignore the rules, but when the punishments become personal, Joel's support system crumbles and causes him to take action. Along the way, he gains insight into some previously unanswered questions and learns a lot about his family and himself in the process. (It is a coming-of-age novel, after all.)

At least a hundred pages too long for the story to support, Sineater keeps the reader involved through the use of present tense. Most often utilized for its sense of immediacy, writing in the present tense is difficult to execute successfully. However, Massie pulls off its use in this novel beautifully and invisibly. I was halfway through the book before I even realized it, which just goes to show how well-suited it is to this author and story.

That, in addition to the fact that the climax is a pulse-pounder that could even make me forget that I was riding the commuter train on my way to work, makes sure that all is forgiven and that Sineater comes highly recommended.

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