The Sin-Eater’s Confession by Ilsa J. Bick
Ben saw what happened to Jimmy. Ben was the only witness except for the murderers who stoned Jimmy to death in the woods. Ben shouldn’t even have been there, not after what Jimmy did to him by taking a sensual photo of him when he was sleeping. But Ben found himself drawn to Jimmy and understood that Jimmy had no one else to turn to. His older brother was dead and his parents could not accept having a son who was suspected of being gay. Ben wasn’t sure that Jimmy is gay, and he was not clear about himself either. What he does know is that Merit, Wisconsin was not an easy place to be gay with prejudice still very evident throughout the community. Ben had to decide what to do about what he witnessed, what to tell the police. Now he has to grapple with the guilt that came from the decisions he made and what he intends to do moving forward.
Bick is the author of the Ashes trilogy and here writes a contemporary teen novel that focuses on several large issues. Issues like parental pressures are huge in Ben’s life where his mother expects him to get into Yale and become a doctor. Ben never goes out, has never dated anyone, and pours all of his energy into school and his part time jobs. The book also covers prejudice and homophobia, along with domestic violence. It’s a lot for a single book to deal with and at times some of the subjects seem to be there more for effect and to make a point than to really be part of the story itself.
The book does suffer from slow pacing in some areas, though the underlying story is taut and almost mesmerizing. Seeing into Ben’s thought process is interesting at first, but there are some layers to it that could have been left off to make the book even stronger.
What Bick really does well here is to create a compelling character in Ben. Jimmy was interesting as well, but it is Ben who really is the soul of the story. Through his eyes and his hindsight, readers are able to see the mistakes that Ben has made, the impossible decisions he has been forced into, and eventually his coming to terms with his own responsibility for what happened. Bick has left large parts of Ben unexplained, which works well. Readers will never be clear about his sexuality, which mirrors the questions about Jimmy as well, placing the reader right in the same place as the bigots in the community. One has to start questioning why it matters so much to label someone.
A harsh and unflinching look at bigotry and one’s personal responsibility in a community, this book asks tough questions and then leaves the answers in the reader’s hands. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Carolrhoda Books.