When people know that you read a lot or they always see you with a book in your hand, it becomes an easy topic of conversation. Questions such as, “What are you reading?” and “How’s that book?” are heard frequently. Most people are genuinely curious, not only to know if you like the book, but also if they will like it.
When I first began reading Thirty-Three Cecils (the title refers to an allegory that is told in the middle of the book) and someone would ask me what I thought of it, my response was, “I’m not sure. It’s different, but it’s too early to tell much else.” The deeper into the book I went, it was no longer too early to tell, but it remained different. And even after I finished it, that was still my first reaction.
This book is unlike anything I’ve ever read.
It tells the story of two men whose paths cross as they are trying to reform themselves, one from prison, the other from alcoholism. Two events – one before the time of the book, one during – make it a national story and, being that it is set in 1992, the story takes place amidst the backdrop of a media that is in the middle of its transformation from morning newspapers and nightly news to 24-hour cable news and social media (the Internet is still in its early infancy).
Only, it’s not written in a traditional narrative form. Instead, it is presented in the form of two journals, one from each character, that were not found and made public until 2014 and were interspersed throughout the book. This was a daring choice and it took time for me to get the hang of it. The beginning of the book dragged – I even had to return to the prologue a couple of times to keep the story straight – but after finishing the book, I went back and it was far easier to follow.
De Morier, a writer and editor whose previous two books are non-fiction, has a unique skill in his ability to write convincingly as two very different men, from two different places and education levels, with two very distinct voices. If you were to just flip open to a random page and read a few words, you’d know instantly from which journal it originated. (Each journal has a different font, but the writing makes this almost unnecessary.) That is important, because this book is basically a dual character study. Yes, there is scene and plot and pacing and things do happen – both to the characters and around them – but it is ultimately about the thoughts of two men and how their actions affect both themselves and those around them.
The prologue actually gives the ending away, but the mystery is in how two disparate men come into each others’ lives and how they go about redeeming their past sins. What at the beginning seems to be a mystery actually becomes a story of hope and optimism.
Despite its inability to hook me from the start, it’s a unique novel that is presented in a refreshing way, one that I ultimately enjoyed and one I suspect could be even better the second time around.
Disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my promise to provide a fair and honest review.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.