Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Book Review: Kin, by Kealan Patrick Burke


 Kin begins at what is more usually construed as an ending: on the well-trod path of the "final girl" staggering away from a massacre, the lone survivor after a family of backwoods cannibals takes an unhealthy interest in a group of teenage backpackers. (What's the big deal?, I thought, slasher movies and torture porn. Yawn.)

But then . . . the story turns itself inside out and slaps the reader upside the head by becoming not merely revenge fiction (though it's that, too), but an investigation of the ripple-effects of an unthinkable crime, and the ways in which formidable bonds can form from even the most tenuous connections in times of crisis. For Burke, the word "kin" is key, and the story clearly implies a broader sense of "family" than just that of the bloodthirsty Merrill clan.

Kin is told from multiple, disparate points of view, all of which cross and weave together seamlessly as the hold-your-breath climax approaches. Among the sharply delineated characters are Claire, the survivor of unthinkable horrors; Peter, a slow but kind farm boy who, along with his father, finds the dying Claire on the road and takes her to the local doctor; Finch, a struggling Iraq war vet and the brother of Claire's boyfriend (now numbered among the cannibalized dead); and Luke, eldest son of the God-fearing, torture-loving, and flesh-eating Merrill clan. Burke's acute psychological profiles invite the reader to empathize not only with the crippling PTSD and survivor's guilt of victims, but also to approach an understanding of the repugnant family values that breed savages.

You should know what you are getting into when you pick up Kin: the violence level is exceptionally high and graphic (although one might intuit that from the blurb). Burke's book is certainly not for the faint of heart, but once you get through the first few raw, stomach-churning chapters, you'll find the payoff in beautiful (and hideous) prose, imaginative detail that takes you places you never wanted to see, well-turned dialogue and believable characters, and a tautly constructed plot that keeps twisting until the very end. Kin gets four-and-a-half stars and not five because of one scenario that felt a bit hard to swallow, but it's a major spoiler, so I won't share it here. Suffice it to say, I won't be able forget this novel anytime soon.

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