Seduced by Death

Sunday, October 21, 2007

ONE FOR SORROW

By Christopher Barzak

Bantam. 308 pp. Paperback, $12

When one of his high school classmates is killed, Adam McCormick finds himself spending most of his time with the dead. Though he was not close to Jamie before his murder, Adam bonds with the ghost from the first moment they fall together into Jamie's grave.

Adam isn't the only one being haunted in Christopher Barzak's remarkable first novel. With rain falling through his transparent form, Jamie stands below the window of Gracie, the girl who discovered his corpse, until she befriends him. But unlike Adam, who craves Jamie's company, Gracie soon decides to stop seeing the ghost.

Repelled by his dysfunctional family, Adam begins dividing his time between these two: Gracie, the object of his desire, and Jamie, the closest thing he has to a best friend. Communing with Jamie, slipping through the backs of closets into "dead space," visiting the spirit of a homicidal child -- these things start to eat away at Adam's tether to all things earthly. He loses not only his appetite, but also his ability to taste and smell and feel. His flesh cools, his breath no longer steams in the winter air. Eventually, Adam runs away from home, away from the pain of his life, and sets up camp with Jamie in a world half in and half out of death.

Traveling through this story with Adam is like a nightmare, but the kind that fascinates you so deeply that when you wake up, you grab the first person you see and tell him about it. The language is deceptively simple. Barzak writes about the supernatural with fearless originality. The ghost doesn't appear to Adam as a specter glimpsed in a mirror or reflected in the bathtub water; instead, the dead boy, naked and wearing the grit of the grave between his teeth, climbs onto Adam's back and rides him through the woods to the abandoned crime scene. Jamie can temporarily re-warm his dead flesh by choosing one of his memories and burning it from within, a page of his life lost forever. He begins with the memory of who murdered him.

The portrait of Adam's family is also unexpected. What drives Adam crazy is not so much that his mother is bound to a wheelchair as that she becomes best friends with the drunk driver who caused her accident. And the love story is just as fresh. When Gracie introduces Adam to sex, he decides she smells like a sunflower, not the plant but the word "sunflower."

One for Sorrow is ultimately a coming-of-age story, more melancholy than morbid and, by the end, profoundly hopeful. The writing is beautiful, honest and heartbreaking. Sometimes it takes a character infatuated with death to remind us why life matters.

-- Laura Whitcomb is the author of the young adult ghost story "A Certain Slant of Light."


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