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Book Review: Others of my Kind, by James Sallis

 

James Sallis is a crime writer’s crime writer, admired for the economy of language with which he conjures up fictional worlds. His most famous novel, Drive, was the basis for the Ryan Gosling film, a movie that shared the book’s existential minimalism, a style typical of Sallis’s terrific back catalogue.

Others of My Kind is similarly pared back but also possesses an emotional depth that Sallis, or any other crime writer, has rarely reached before. In just 157 pages he creates a story full of heart, imbued with a warmth of human spirit that most longer books could only dream of.

The story is told by Jenny, now a grown woman who as a child was abducted and kept for two years in a box under the bed of her kidnapper. After escaping, she lived in a shopping mall as a feral creature for 18 months, her discovery an infamous episode.

With a new identity, Jenny now works as a video editor for a local Washington news channel, a metaphor for the shaping of her own personal narrative that Sallis plays with a very deft hand. Jenny has created her new life out of the ashes of her terrible childhood, but all that is threatened when a detective comes to her door asking for help with a teenage girl called Cheryl who has just escaped from a similar kidnapping.

Others of My Kind is far from a conventional crime novel. There’s no dead body, no crime to solve, and the detective is peripheral to the main story, which is Jenny’s ongoing attempt to keep living in the wake of the atrocities committed to her and others.

Structurally, much of this novel shouldn’t work but somehow it does. Most of the first third of Others of My Kind is Jenny’s backstory, but Sallis hooks the reader with his innate ability to cut straight to the heart of the matter. Jenny is an amazing character right from the off, incredibly damaged on the one hand but full of hope for humanity on the other. As well as taking in the traumatised Cheryl, she shows forgiveness for her own kidnapper as well as feeding the local stray cat and helping out the down-at-heel squatters who have moved in next door.

With the concept of a conventional childhood stolen from her, Jenny has become adept at creating her own unconventional family unit as best she can, but it’s a constant battle. As she tells Cheryl towards the end of this exquisitely crafted book: “We work at making a self for most of a lifetime only to find that the self we’ve created is inseparable from the struggle.” In Sallis’s sublime hands, the struggle is worth it.

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