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February 27, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | February 27, 2008 |

Endings are powerful things. They have the ability to enhance or ruin all that came before. Allow me a brief, if embarrassing, example. First, however, I must first admit my taste in movies is somewhat … lacking. I like cheese. Highlander? Love it. So I understand that I might incur some derision when I argue that most of Silent Hill is actually pretty good — that is, until the end, when all the freaky shit that occurs during the movie is explained. Said explanation is so friggin lame that the entire movie is rendered crap. (Many will argue that M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village is another example of this idea, but I kinda liked that one — an unpopular opinion, I know.)

The Soul Thief falls victim to this same principle. Most of this book is actually pretty good — so long as you ignore the ending, a clich├ęd piece of “trickery” that attempts to put a philosophical spin on things but instead comes off as trite and overdone. Without giving anything away, I’ll say only that similar logic often appears in children, who, not knowing how to properly end a story, decide simply to make it all a dream. Charles Baxter, author of the critically acclaimed The Feast of Love, should know better.

Baxter’s ninth work of fiction begins as our narrator Nathaniel Mason — a name, we are immediately told, that is fictional, although the reasons for such a maneuver are not explained — relates his initial encounter with the “whiz-kid sage” Jerome Coolberg. Their bizarre relationship is at the heart of the novel. Coolberg is described from the outset as a genius who clings to the lives of those around him, a soul thief who lacks an identity of his own. The Soul Thief is Mason’s account of how his identity was stolen by Coolberg. Or is it?

Coolberg knows information that he cannot possibly know. He has in his possession that which he should not have. As bits of his life and memory are lost to this mysterious shadow, Mason loses his grip on sanity. Nothing can be trusted.

From the beginning, the reader knows something big is coming; one can’t help but notice allusions and loaded phrases scattered throughout the book — references to Hitchcock jump off the page. Which are legitimate clues and which are red herrings? After reading the entire novel, one is prompted to reread key scenes with the ending in mind. Unfortunately, doing so is ultimately unfulfilling; seemingly important elements do not offer deeper insight the second time around.

All the same, The Soul Thief is an adequate thriller that provides a few hours of entertainment. So long as you’re aware that the ending will most likely disappoint, losing as it does an opportunity to achieve something greater, then you won’t be dissatisfied. On second thought, maybe Baxter is fulfilling a concept introduced early in the novel, when he emphasizes that “concepts may be more interesting, more varied, and more challenging than the actualities they give rise to.” Perhaps The Soul Thief is the actuality of this very idea; if so, then Baxter hasn’t failed at all.

Jennifer McKeown protects herself from soul thieves with a shiny tinfoil hat. She blogs over at Bibliolatry.

A Thief Undone

The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter / Jennifer McKeown

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