“The Book of Cain,” by Jeff Lowe

Jeff Lowe

Reviewed by Joshua S. Fullman 

The story of Cain’s slaying of his brother and fall from grace stands as one of the great myths of the human condition. It rightly claims envy the source of nearly all interpersonal conflict, pitting us against one another for property, position, and approval. Further, it relates the origin of the oldest enemy of man: not his competitors but himself, with hatred his motive and murder his instrument. As with Cain’s parents before him, God meets Cain with a question, asking him for his brother’s whereabouts, to which Cain famously responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The self-deception in his voice and duplicitous tone toward God implies the Mosaic view of humanity. Yes, we are to protect and preserve our brother, and failure to do so is as much an injury to ourselves as to our brother.

But what if Cain was simply—and wrongly—misunderstood? I initially believed this novel would attempt such a revisioning akin to many recent attempts to revitalize earlier narratives and infuse them with contemporary perspective and values. J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, even Seth Grahame-Smith’s novels and Disney’s Maleficent are just a few examples of this postmodern penchant for reinterpretation. Such attempts can be refreshing while others are simply puerile efforts to sell stories from the other side of a moral binary. I don’t believe Jeff Lowe is making such an attempt here. This story does not seek to exculpate the original murderer, though it does offer a modern analogue to its biblical counterpart. Rather, he seeks to understand how humanity can remain humane in the face of implacable evil.

To be sure, Cain is not the antagonist of this story, though we are meant to believe he is when we first meet him. The tale begins in the Lazaretto, a former leper colony turned last-chance school. Readers will recognize a fearful tone evocative of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. We all-too-easily imagine Last as a Clarisse Starling descending into the Lazaretto to be confronted by a nightmarish Cain qua Hannibal Lecter. Yet despite his physical toughness, Cain appears non-threatening and opens up his psyche for reasons unknown to Last, who hopes to exonerate the young man before he races up the school-to-prison pipeline. Before we even know what’s happening, Cain takes over the narrative, transporting us through his childhood hell.

Act One of Cain’s story revolves around the loss of his little brother, whose biblical connections become ever-more paramount deeper into the text. Though this Cain claims he was not responsible for his four-year-old brother’s death (his story is that a river cat jumped out of the water and stole the toddler from their boat), his mother—the true antagonist—cannot believe him. In her grief and rage she engages in wildly cruel acts to wrestle the truth from her firstborn. Lowe’s imagination conjures a variety of despicable behaviors, all of which no sane parent could comprehend doing to his or her child. There is an element of contrived shock value here, and while not told in a viscerally gruesome way, I admit feeling a sense of heaviness settling over me as I read through his mother’s brutalities. The inhuman extremities of what Cain endures quickly compel the reader to sympathize with the main character, despite our earlier prejudices against him.

The second part of the story follows Cain as he grows and hardens into a young man—physical, worldly wise, and dangerous. One of the unintended consequences of her lessons is that Cain’s mother teaches him never to be naïve, and so, Cain understandably develops a mistrust for people. Yet he does so without resorting to cynicism and rancor, possessing an unworldly sense of goodness that is either truly miraculous or a failure of authorial design. Despite his disadvantages, he finds some true friends in drifter Sammy Blue and childhood sweetheart Laura McKenzie; but even these relationships do not approach the sense of normalcy we would look for in a hero. He learns how to fight and how to survive from his mom’s boyfriend, Sailor, who introduces Cain and his mother into an underworld of evil that Cain, surprisingly, finds contemptuous even as he assists them. Here the story takes a startling turn, as Cain challenges the rise of an environmentalist fish cult on the anniversary of his brother’s death.

The finishing act concludes with Cain facing the pain of his past, present, and future, coming face to face with inexplicable evil. His origin tale concludes, and Last takes over the narrative once again, trying to piece together the veracity of Cain’s story with her own supposed knowledge. The biblical associations, which abound throughout the text, are highlighted ever more colorfully here, from the frequent appearance of rainbows to a baptism and manifestations of recognizable grace. Curiously, we spend much more time with her than with him, as he experiences a final transformation, perhaps ever more closely in his associations with the villain of Genesis. The text ends, asking us to what degree is redemption possible: for Last, for Cain, for any of us?

As a novel, the plot is engaging in its unpredictability. It certainly has its moments of intrigue, and while a reader knows how a story overlaid with myth must end, one does not always know the path we will take to arrive there. We are led, thus, on a labyrinthine journey through tropes of friendship, art, religion, suffering, some of which would be interesting in their own rite—even without the biblical references. Yet these are tropes rather than themes, as there is a low level of thematic unity; that is not to say, none, but not of a deep nature. To his credit, Lowe addresses the elemental aspects of humanity: the meaning of life, the fear of death, the yearning for redemption. But the execution is carried out in minor, rather too obvious ways, more akin to a television movie than to literature. Indeed, the visual aspects of the story may have much to recommend it, and I find it easier to envision the action than to connect deeply with the characters, all of whom appear to share an identical, innate goodness—excepting, perhaps, the fiendish mother, who also lacks complexity and dimension. Even Cain himself, who should be constructed as an antihero, though not necessarily with the self-conscious reconstruction of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, feels too intentionally good for us to view him as a re-embodiment of the first murderer, as the narration clearly wants us to assume at the outset of the text. Is this disconnect part of the point, I wonder? Has Cain been reimagined for the modern age, with all the resources of a century of humanist psychology and twenty centuries of Christianity brought to bear on his rehabilitation?

Part of me wishes it were so. But the narrative lacks the artistry to accomplish such an end. The author weaves a provocative story, though it is often told rather than shown. The language is simplistic, far too simplistic to engage the reader in aesthetic appreciation and careful reflection. The author opts for a presentation of dialogue reminiscent of Hemingway but without its nuance and iceberg depths. Internal sense impressions are sacrificed for external, sensationalized action. More to the point, the writing lacks subtlety. The symbolism of each event and character is so overt as to be trying, especially in its bombastic finishing act as all the pieces fit perfectly and all coincidence made felicitous. These unbelievable connections create a sense of thaumaturgy rather than art. As one prominent example, Last struggles to retain her scientifically naturalistic perspectives of psychiatry and history in the face of such overwhelming coincidences, to the point of even seeing connections between each phase of the story and the colors of the rainbow. It is a fumbling effort on the part of the character, last grasps for some anchor to retain her old metanarrative. But is the author, then, projecting a providential view of the world? Or one of chance? These philosophical questions belong to the sub-text, not the text itself. Consequently, they strain credulity, and it becomes sorely obvious that we are reading a tale written by an author. So as Last questions her view of the world, we the reader cannot—as we know too well her own world is also being manipulated by an unseen mind.

As Dorothy Sayers relates in The Mind of the Maker, poetic justice is neither poetic nor justice. It is a fictional system of rewards and punishments that we accept to right the world within an imaginative vision. As art invites us into its reflective embrace, we are aware of a double consciousness, a knowledge we are reading a narrative told by a narrator. But never should we feel we are being told by the narrator what we should be reading. The miracle should be self-evident, even if puzzling; any attempt at explanation peaks behind the magician’s curtain and spoils the trick.

For all its faults, The Book of Cain is, at times, an enjoyable read, and while not successfully rising to the level of literary art, weaves a captivating fish story.

Click here to purchase this book:



Leave a Reply