Review: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni

This book read like a field trip through the realms of Catholic guilt. Comprising intolerance, adolescence and the search for faith, it was definitely an interesting read- if one that felt a little heavy-handed at times.

The story is that of Sam Hill (or Hell, as he’s quickly nicknamed): a boy born with a genetic mutation, ocular albinism, that has made his eyes turn red. (Cue much Googling of said red eyes.) With his religious mother determined that his eyes mark him out for greatness, Sam nevertheless endures bullying all through his childhood- and when, forty years later, that same bully comes back into his circle, he must decide how to act, and what the right thing to do is.

It sounds quite heavy, and at times it is- but I did enjoy it. Dugoni gives Sam a strong, likeable and slightly wry voice from the start that spans two different plot threads: that of his life as an adult doctor, and that recounting his childhood growing up in suburban America in a way that reads a little like John Irvine. This thorough exploration and exhumation of his demons comes to the forefront as we’re taken for a ride through Sam’s past, getting to know his family and friends along the way.

There isn’t an awful lot of plot here, but there doesn’t need to be: Dugoni’s focus is all on the characters, watching how they interact and develop, perhaps a bit like real life. It also offers a great way to explore themes like religion and intolerance in small-town America. It pays off, too, because you really invest in those characters- from Sam’s strong-willed, and stubborn, mother, whose love is tempered by some truly hilarious moments that had me sniggering at the page, to the growing romance between Sam and his childhood friend Mickie, which neither of them wants to address but which will give you a serious case of will-they-won’t-they syndrome.

Most of all, though, this is a book about faith, and Dugoni paints a wonderfully nuanced portrait of what it means to believe in today’s world- as nuanced as a stained-glass window. Sam’s attempts to reconcile the events in his life with ‘God’s will’, compared with his mother’s steadfast faith, leads to some quietly beautiful moments, and though some had me cringing slightly, the religious-redemptive arc is beautifully handled and feels natural and unforced.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. It has the small-town feel of many great American authors, with it’s own unique slant that will definitely get you thinking. Also, Sam Hill and his family are quite possibly the sweetest and most endearing family: you’ll fall in love with them!

Three word review: faith, tolerance, growing up


One thought on “Review: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni

  1. Alas, this novel sounds a little too didactic for me, but excellent review nonetheless! I’m agnostic and generally don’t read books with a strongly Christian slant unless they’re C.S. Lewis, I lean toward more secular literature myself.


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