The coming-of-age story is as old a genre as any. It presents the main character’s life as a gradual, ever-progressing straight line, and tends to move chronologically, from reckless youth to wise, even-tempered maturity.
The trouble with this formula, however—and it is a formula, albeit a pleasant one—is that most of the suspense gets drained out automatically. Sure, the heroes might suffer a bit, but you know they’re ultimately going to weather whatever crisis they’re facing, and probably learn some invaluable life lesson along the way.
Out Backward, the debut novel by London, England’s Ross Raisin, takes this familiar storytelling model and deftly pulls it inside out. When simple-minded farmhand Sam Marsdyke accidentally brings his new neighbours maggot-infested mushrooms as a housewarming present in the book’s early pages, at least his intentions are good. From here, however, Sam begins a plunge into self-delusion and obsession, centred on the 15-year-old girl living next door. The descent is as chilling as it is utterly believable.
Signs of Sam’s impending derangement start to crop up almost immediately, but Raisin is careful to ground them in a sympathetic reality. Sam has lively conversations with himself, the farm dogs, and even inanimate objects, but trapped as he is on an isolated English moor with his surly father and timid mother, it’s initially hard not to side with him. Most of the time he’s pretty funny, too.
Things darken the night Sam tries to strike up a midnight conversation with a neighbour’s chicken: “There was no talking to him, perched up on the beam there like a pineapple. Cock-a-doodle-doo, he called again, how many girlfriends do you have, Marsdyke? I’ve got twenty.” All of a sudden, he bludgeons the bird to death with a stick. It’s then that Sam’s eccentricities lose their innocence, and start to look a lot like the vicious ramblings of a sociopath.
Part of the book’s success comes from Sam’s terrifically convoluted (and heavily Yorkshire-accented) narration, and part of it comes from Raisin’s larger meditations on issues like urban sprawl. But it all comes back to the suspense that an inverted coming-of-age tale generates almost effortlessly: Out Backward’s greatest mystery is not how Sam will slowly settle into adulthood, but whether he will make it there before self-destructing.
HarperCollins Canada, 256 pp, $13.95, softcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, September 25, 2008)