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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 January 2012
Some readers may understandably be deterred from reading Russell Banks's "Lost Memory of Skin" due to its controversial subject matter and there's no doubt that it's a morally complex read. The main character, known only to us at "the Kid" is a young man who is a convicted sex offender. Set in south Florida, he is forced to reside, with other offenders and his pet Iguana, under a causeway. While living here, he encounters a huge and enigmatic man, known only as "the Professor" from the local university who is apparently studying homelessness amongst sex offenders and the two form an uneasy friendship.

Banks's languid writing style draws you into the story and in some ways it brings to mind some of the great coming-of-age novels of the US, such as "Catcher in the Rye" and even "Huckleberry Finn". Although physically somewhat older than the protagonists of those novels, the Kid's emotional age is not that different and the crimes for which he has been convicted are more down to naivety than anything substantially evil. By having the Kid represent the plight of these sex offenders is partly what makes this morally challenging as it's easy to if not forgive, then understand the circumstances that led to his crime while others have a more troubling moral background. This is, I suspect, part of what Banks is getting at in terms of the tendency to categorize everyone under the same term.

Banks also challenges the patently daft and morally questionable way the US justice system deals with these offenders. The Kid, like his colleagues, has been released from prison but is still on, in his case, a ten year parole whereby he is required to wear a tracking device, banned from moving out of Calousa county but not allowed to live within 2500 feet of any school, playground etc. This equates to a radius of 9.25 million square feet. In an urban county this means that there are only three places that don't intersect these circles: under the causeway, out in the swamp or the international airport where police can arrest you for vagrancy effectively ruling this option out. Thus, the system enforces homelessness. This situation is repeatedly emphasized and at times, Banks can get a little preachy on the situation, albeit understandably. Whatever the answer is, this surely isn't it.

The situation is so ridiculous that you find yourself sympathizing with the Kid, and empathizing with a sex offender is not an easy place to sit. It's a measure of Banks's style and skill that allows the reader to sit there. Despite my initial resistance, I was drawn in to his story and to the strange relationship with the Professor.

It's when the story turns to focus more on the Professor's background, about three quarters of the way through the book, that the book takes another uncomfortable twist. I won't reveal details, but he has a past - although what that is is somewhat open to debate. We are told that the Professor's character allows him to compartmentalize the past and to some extent, perhaps he is representing everyman in the ways we compartmentalize all sex offenders under one bracket and can dismiss them all under the same moral judgement. Either way, the story gets a little weird from this point on and for me at least didn't seem to quite fit with the tone of the rest of the book.

It's a book that certainly stimulates debate. There's a fair amount of what can be termed "adult content" particularly relating to the Kid's childhood porn addiction, some debate over good and evil and if that is intrinsic or a label we apply, and huge questions over the morals of the treatment of offenders in the US. While the questions asked are not always comfortable, the questions it asks are important and the book itself is highly readable and draws you in to the story.
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on 29 January 2013
I bought this book with some hesitation as I wasn't terribly interested in the reasons behind sexual deviance and just considered the offenders to be out of step with my morality, whatever their reasons/excuses. This book opened my eyes to the dilemas bith offenders and we as a society face with how best to deal with and to help people from such dire backgrounds who fall into sexual offending. I still find what they did utterly incomprehensible and revolting but I have a much less one dimensional view of them. The damage inflicted both directly and indirectly by parents casual carelessness and over care is interestingly explored and I feel I can now begin understand if not have total empathy why the people turn out how they do.
This is not a comfortable book but very readable and well written. I am so glad that Russell Banks was brave enough to write this book on a pariah subject.
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on 24 January 2013
Reading the blurb for this book I wondered if it might be dreadfully grim. A review in The Idependent convinced me otherwise and I took a chance and bought it and it's likely to be my personal Book of the Year. I already a small awareness of the constraints placed on registered sex offenders in the United states, but this book really opened my eyes to the lives they have to live. Russell Banks passes no judgement on the men, or on the lawmakers. He simply and clearly depicts their lives.

His two main characters, The Kid and the Professor, are well drawn and intriguing and I found myself worrying for The kid, while at the same time wanting to shake him.

This is a book that has stayed with me. I've talked about it to friends and can recommend it as an involving read.
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on 28 April 2012
We are living in the Golden Age of novel-writing in English (which perhaps compensates for it being the Worst Age of English-language poetry). Most of the wonderful books now published are from Old England, but this American book is the best I have read in years.

It's 'Huckeberry Finn' wonderfully and accurately updated, with more than a nod to the almost-forgotten, beautiful Steinbeck of 'Tortilla Flat', 'Cannery Row', etc. The Professor in Banks' book is not quite Doc Ricketts, but there is more than a slight resemblance.

Twain + Steinbeck - plus Dostoyevsky. What greater praise could an American author receive ?

Despite the grudging reviews by the hacks, make no mistake: this book could change your life, because it tackles problems about the basis of modern American culture - the culture of 'aspiration', class, gain, greed, punishment and vengeance - and the reality which is the USA in general, and Miami in particular.

I identified with The Kid (not to mention the dog and parrot). I largely identified with The Professor. I sort-of identified with The Writer. I totally identified with this author - who is one of the most compassionate, perceptive, profound and - indeed - self-effacing writers I have come across.

Russell Banks in this book confronts the reality of America's pornographic and prudish society, a society even more hypocritical than that of England. America's largest export is pornography. Its largest lobby-group is the Christian Right - who have managed to make just about everyone in that country afraid of them. Put the two together and you have the reality of the Great American Dream, which has turned millions of people's lives to nightmare - not just in the USA but in every country tainted by American Values.

This is a book against Political Correctness (an Americanism for 'hateful and self-justifying hypocrisy'). It is a book about self-conscious and unselfconscious love. It is beautifully written.

I dare the politically-correct and politically-motivated Nobel Literature committee to endorse Mr Banks as he deserves.

This was the first RB book I have read. (Thanks to the BBC !) I shall read everything he has written.
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on 19 October 2013
A definate 5 stars for this engrossing book which tackles a very difficult subject with stunning empathy for the social pariahs of our society. Most readers will embark upon this book with entrenched attitudes to the central character and his associates. Sex offenders are most definately not generally portrayed as deserving of our sympathy, yet Banks creates a very believable protagonist who, whilst undoubtedly has committed the crimes he has been convicted of, also emerges as an individual who is deserving of some sympathy and even respect as "The Kid" struggles throughout the book to do the right even honourable thing in many of the situations he finds himself in.
Reading this book makes us question our accepted responses to those convited of sex crimes. We are never expected to condone in any way the actions of those convicted of their crimes but are very much asked to question our societies response towards them. I finished this book with an overwhelming feeling of sadness together with a belief that we should treat these offenders with a greater measure of humanity.
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VINE VOICEon 30 September 2015
I think that the subject matter is really interesting. Sex offender is released from prison and is trying to settle back into a society which will not accept him so has to exclusively mix with others "like him". Surely this has to be the worse way to rehabilitate someone?
Beyond that though I really struggled to find anything of interest in this book. I don't find like the way that the characters are written as there is nothing that you can hook into - even if you don't like them characters have to be interesting and too many aren't here. A lot of people like this book but I decided in the end that the author had picked a deliberately controversial topic and was sensationalising it. Many times the writing picked up and I thought the book was going to draw me in but every time it failed and I gave up eventually.
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on 21 May 2015
I liked the premise of this book. A boy, who we come to know as "Kid" is released from prison and listed as a sexual offender. He isn't allowed anywhere near children and lives in a tent underneath a bridge with other sexual predators because society doesn't allow them to go anywhere else.

All of a sudden, this university professor comes along and makes "Kid" his subject for his research. That's where this lost me. What on EARTH went on this book? I wish I knew. Funnily enough, I finished this despite several instances where I wanted to toss it in the trash.

There were rare instances where I gained a bit of interest - but then the following paragraph would utterly lose me again. This was also terrible, terribly written. *Sigh* It seems I am reading quite a lot of tripe lately.
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on 2 June 2012
I found this book quite hard going at times, the novel takes a while to get into to. The protagonist 'The kid' has been convicted as a sex offender, and as part of his release conditions he must not leave Casula county but he is not allowed to live within so many metres of a church, school, playground etc, which means there are only three places he can live; in the swamp, at the airport and under the causeway. The latter being where he resides with a number of other sex offenders.

Later in the novel he is befriended by 'the professor' who wants to use him as the subject of a study, and create a community for the sex offenders below the causeway where they can live in relative safety. The professor too has a past but the reader never really works out what that is.

It is a really interesting read as you do end up feeling quite sorry for the kid, which can be a little hard to stomach, as some other reviewers have noted because he is a convicted sex offender. If you enjoy a moral argument I would recommend this book as it really does make you think. On one hand the offenders have all 'done the time' for the crimes, but then equally would you want them living next door to your family?
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on 7 October 2013
No normal person finds sex crimes acceptable behaviour. Lost Memory of Skin makes you think about what we can do with those who have committed sex crimes. Clearly, the example in the book is a ridiculous solution making life so impossible for the offenders that one almost feels sorry for them.
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on 4 May 2013
I'm a huge Banks fan, Rule of the Bone is my favourite book of all time. I read a sample of this and was hooked. Gripping story that challenges the view of 'them and us'.
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