By Ilsa J. Bick
Available now from Carolrhoda LAB (Lerner)
When local football player Del dies, Ben volunteers to help his family around the farm and eventually takes a job there. He takes Del's little brother Jimmy under his wing, but things change when Jimmy places second in a national photography contest. One of the photos is a sexually charged image of Ben that fuels much gossip and speculation in their small town of Merit, Wisconsin.
You know where Ben ends up from the beginning. THE SIN EATER'S CONFESSION is framed by Ben in Afghanistan, serving as a Medic, and writing a letter explaining what he knows about Jimmy, then deciding who to send it to. They mystery is what happened to Jimmy, and not even Ben knows the whole story, though he probably knows more than most.
THE SIN EATER'S CONFESSION reminded me strongly of WHAT HAPPENED TO LANI GARVER and ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS. It felt regressive at times, given how bigoted and unaccepting the people of Merit are. But the novel makes a valid point in the novel that not every town is progressive, and right now being born somewhere where being gay is okay is still a matter of good luck.
The strengths of THE SIN EATER'S CONFESSION lie in Ben's voice and the ambiguity of people and events. Ben is profoundly affected by people making assumptions about him, so he tries to refrain from making assumptions about others. (He's also pretty clueless about when people are obviously into him.) At the same time, he has his own prejudices that color his perceptions. Although sometimes he is clearly right, because Jimmy's dad is a piece of work.
The main weakness is that the plot gets increasingly preposterous as the story goes on. By the end of THE SIN EATER'S CONFESSION, Ben has done so many bone-headed things that it's amazing he's still alive and not in jail to enlist. I don't want to refer to enlisting as a bone-headed thing. Ilsa J. Bick is pretty fair about the pros and cons of the armed forces and why people might choose to enlist during a time of war. But by the end of THE SIN EATER'S CONFESSION, I was having trouble suspending my disbelief.
This is the first book I've read by Ilsa J. Bick, though I know her Ashes books are very popular. The end notes state that this is the first book she sold, and so I do feel a little as if I should approach THE SIN EATER'S CONFESSION as a debut work as well as a novel by an established writer. It's got a great voice and raises some interesting questions, but it's pretty messy. Recommended for fans of unsolved mysteries and LGBTQ themes.