J.L. Powers,
The Confessional
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

The Confessional has all the elements that should make it a good novel for young adults (it's aimed at readers age 14 and older). It features a complex plot involving murder, race, religion and cultural differences in El Paso, Texas -- there's a lot of weight in its 300 pages.

To author J.L. Powers' credit, the book never takes the easy way out. All the action is revealed through interwoven stories told by seven main characters, all high-school friends. Details overlap, the story jumps ahead or behind, and important elements emerge or are omitted as the story progresses. It's a style well suited to the kaleidoscope of events surrounding this murder in a border town.

Is this an appropriate novel for teens? That depends.

As can be expected in a novel centering on young adults, parents and other authority figures are secondary in resolving issues. Not a big surprise there. However, an adult reader may be surprised to find a quote from Travis Bickle at the head of one chapter -- the homicidal vigilante from the film Taxi Driver. The main characters debate patriotism and racism, drugs and sex in very frank terms (parents beware: six of the seven deadly words are repeated, often, from the very first page) and while the overall effect of these debates is potent, they seem to happen simply for the writer to make her points. This is not The Hardy Boys.

The fireworks fizzle at the end, for all the razzle-dazzle. The writer struggles to reconcile all the big issues she's dealing with, including the role of the Catholic Church in immigration issues. A gay teen may or may not have a crush on a gay teacher, or another student. The end result is a very contemprary, teen-market potboiler, with some very harsh language and a case of severe attention-deficit disorder.

review by
Mark Bromberg

10 November 2007

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