Mar 24, 2008

One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak

One for Sorrow is the first person story of fifteen-year-old Adam McCormick. Adam’s deceased grandmother always told him that bad things came in threes, and when the first two happen in the same night, Adam sees that he has reasons to worry. After an argument with his father, his mother leaves the house and has a car accident that leaves her in a wheelchair. At about the same time, the body of one of Adam’s classmates, Jamie Marks, is found by another girl from their school.

In a small town in Ohio, the murder of a fifteen-year-old boy is not a common occurrence, and the macabre discovery leaves people talking about it for weeks. Adam hears the gossip at school, but he doesn’t partake in it. Adam is, like Jamie was, a quiet, lonely and introspective boy. Jamie used to sit beside Adam during computer lab, and Adam had always wondered if one day they could maybe become friends.

When one night Adam visits the place where Jamie’s body was found, he sees Jamie’s ghost, and the two boys develop, after death, the friendship they never did develop while Jamie was alive. At the same time, Adam also gets involved with Gracie Highsmith, the girl who found Jamie’s body. As the situation with his family becomes worse, and as he grows closer and closer to Jamie, his connection with the world of the living grows thinner. In the end, Adam has to decide if he belongs in the world of the living or if his place is to be found among the dead.

One for Sorrow is a ghost story, but it is one that is more unsettling than frightening, more touching than morbid. The first thing to grab me in this book was the tone of quiet melancholy that permeates the whole story. The second thing was the amazing accuracy with which Christopher Barzak captures the voice of a teenage boy. I have to quote from Midori Snyder’s lovely review at Endicott Redux: “Too often contemporary novels with young adult protagonists feel compelled to exaggerate the teen voice by liberally lacing it with slang in an effort to make it "fresh" (a new marketing word) -- yet Adam's voice is clean, effortless, "ordinary" in a way that allows the emotionally charged power of the story to shine through.”

Indeed, unlike what we find in some YA novels, Adam’s voice is not tainted by the use of “modern” expressions that feel much too forced. He sounds young in a way that is timeless: he is earnest, he tries to make sense of the world around him, he is eager, he is contemplative, and he is absolutely convincing.

One for Sorrow captures adolescence with almost disturbing accuracy, and I doubt it will fail to touch anyone who remembers being young – anyone who remembers the anxiety, the confusion, the longing, the awaking sexuality, the extreme vulnerability. Barzak is not afraid to portray how acutely lonely those years can be, and he perfectly describes the feeling of growing so fast you feel like your skin is stretching and suddenly becoming too thin to cover your whole body, to protect you from the blows of the world. As you walk skinless down a high school hallway, any little thing – a glance, a word, a snicker – can feel like a mortal wound. And all of this happens while you struggle to discover who you are and just where exactly you belong.

One for Sorrow is a beautiful and poignant story about loneliness and loss, about relationships, hope, and growing up. I found the ending perfect: it wasn’t bleak, but it also wasn’t upbeat enough to disagree with the tone of quiet sadness of the book. It was the kind of ending that makes you smile among your tears, dry your eyes, and prepare to face the world, because life, regardless of those who part and of what we lose, always does go on.


  1. I don't know how you always seem to find books that sound fantastic....that I've never heard of before! I'm definitely adding this to my reading list.

    Thanks for such a great review!!

  2. Wow, what a beautiful review. This sounds like a wonderful book!

  3. "he perfectly describes the feeling of growing so fast you feel like your skin is stretching and suddenly becoming too thin to cover your whole body, to protect you from the blows of the world. As you walk skinless down a high school hallway, any little thing – a glance, a word, a snicker – can feel like a mortal wound."

    beautifully written and so true, I remember the feeling well.
    I've never heard of this!another one for the list:-)

  4. Another amazingly exquisite review, Nymeth. I honestly cannot understand why you are not writing are so incredibly gifted!

    My husband bought me a gift card for Easter...I think I know where part of it's going now!

  5. This is a beautiful review. Thank you. It really sounds like a sensitive, touching story.

    Just noticed you're "Currently Reading" John Cheever. How's his writing?

  6. Such a beautiful review Nymeth :) Thanks for that!

    I've had this on my wishlist for a few months now and it sounds like I'm going to have to just go and get it. That's what I tend to do...I put stuff on the wishlist until people give me a second reason to buy them, and then I get it :p So you're review is now the second reason! Sounds like it could actually fit into OUaT too!

  7. I keep seeing this around but didn't know much about it. It sounds like something I would definitely enjoy, but as I am not buying any new books at the moment it will have to go on my list for when I can treat myself. There is always the library in the meantime...

  8. I've just finished a great non-fic book about ghosts, so now I'm coveting some ghost fiction. This one sounds great!

  9. Stephanie, I found this one via Endicott Redux. Needless to say, I am very glad I did!

    Darla, thank you. It is a wonderful book!

    Valentina: I remember that feeling well too. I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it.

    Debi, thank you so much. You really are too nice. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did.

    Dark Orpheus: Thank you. I'm really enjoying Cheever's stories so far. I like his irony, his subtlety, and the way he transmits a feeling of hushed disquiet. It'll probably take me months to get through the book, though...the thing's almost 900 pages long, and I've been getting distracted reading other things.

    Chris: Thanks :) It would fit into OUaT, and RIP III as well. You should get it!

    Rhinoa: Yup, there's always the library! I hope you find it there. I think you'd enjoy it.

    Eva: This is definitely one of the best ghost stories I have ever read.

  10. I'm not familiar with the author, but this book sounds like a great read and intriguing too! I wish I've the ability to find all the good books like you, hehe...

    Thanks for the great review, Nymeth! :)

  11. These are my favorite kinds of ghost stories. It sounds like a good book, Nymeth. Thank you for the great review.

  12. Melody: This is his first novel, and what an impressive debut! And you do find some great books yourself :)

    Literary Feline: They are my favourite kind too, and unfortunately it is only rarely that I find them.


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