Published by HarperCollins on September 27, 2011
Read synopsis on Goodreads
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Reading about homeless people is tough. Reading about sex offenders is even tougher. Reading about homeless, sex offenders can be downright difficult, which is what The Lost Memory of Skin by award-winning Russell Banks is all about. What’s interesting is that Banks manages to write about this difficult combination without making the reader squirm too much. Rather than being about sex offenses, it’s about people who live on the fringes of society and, in this case, they just happen to be in the registry.
Set in the Florida panhandle, the book follows two main characters, The Kid and The Professor. The Kid is 21 and a convicted sex offender living under an overpass with other convicted offenders. It’s one of two places in town that is the mandatory distance away from a school or public park and the group of men form, if not a friendship, then a cooperation of sorts based on their mutual exclusion from society. Life is fairly predictable until The Professor shows up wanting to interview The Kid about his day-to-day life. The Professor has a keen interest in the link between sex crimes and homelessness and The Kid spends a lot of time wondering what The Professor’s end game is.
There were times when I was reading this book that I wasn’t sure whether I was enjoying it or not. It’s hard for me to read a book where I feel empathy for a character that I should probably hate. It was even harder because I had no idea what The Kid had done until much later in the book, so I had a lot of anxiety about what was to come. But when it was all said and done, the fact that I had an emotional reaction (good or bad) is an indication that it was worth the read.
Now that I’ve had some time to look back and reflect, I have to admit that Banks‘ way of writing is rather brilliant. If someone had told me that the book was made up of characters with generic names I would have thought it was a cop-out and a way to avoid full character development. But Banks actually manages to develop the characters even more in-depth because of their generic identities. It allows the reader to focus on the issues that the characters face more fully than if they had real names. Because ultimately, this isn’t a book about characters, it’s a social commentary. It’s about how one mistake can ruin someone’s life. It’s about how being cast out from society with nowhere to go results in a snowball effect. It’s about how being required to live a certain distance away from a school or a park can be pretty problematic when there isn’t any housing that meets the qualifications. It’s about how a community more or less forces homelessness and then tries to address its homelessness problem.
So if you’re looking for a happy-go-lucky story, this is definitely not the book for you. But if you’re even slightly interested in reading The Lost Memory of Skin, then I highly recommend it. Along with all of the social commentary, there are some pretty great plot twists. Plus, it has an ending not unlike The Life of Pi in that it will leave you questioning everything. It can be slow-going and I didn’t love it while I was reading it, but looking back I find that I enjoyed it much more than I had originally thought.