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Book review: Original Sins by Matt Rowland Hill

29 September 2023

Francis Martin reads an expert on doublethink

A MEMOIR, by its nature, is an act of confession. In Original Sins, Matt Rowland Hill holds nothing back — or, at least, it doesn’t seem as if he does, as he recounts taking heroin at the funeral of a friend who died of an overdose, and describes the explosiveness of his teenage lust, further inflamed as he reads from the Song of Solomon. No detail is too gritty to be left out as Hill tells the story of his life: of losing his faith, finding a heroin addiction, and the long journey towards recovery.

Growing up as the son of a firebrand preacher, the young Hill is full of evangelistic zeal. He decides that he had better focus on converting an attractive girl at his school, and sets about it by getting drunk for the first time with her. “It was important to gain unbelievers’ trust before attempting to win them for Christ,” he reasons. It is only when they are fumbling to lose their virginity together, a month or so later, that Hill is honest with himself: “whatever it was that I was doing with Emma, it was not the Lord’s work.”

Hill’s adolescent adeptness at doublethink serves him well when he falls in love with heroin at university, an affair that comes to require all his reserves of self-deceit and dignity. But if Hill had simply written a catalogue of tragi-comic anecdotes, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a book as this turns out to be. What elevates it is the artfulness with which Hill has constructed the tale, with a narrative that dips back and then dives forward, and shifts from eloquent exposition to skittish fragments, all mirroring the hellish roller-coaster of his addiction.

The word “fiction” derives from the Latin “to shape”. In the way in which he sculpts the narrative, it is clear that Hill — who admits that, early in the writing process, he thought that the book might turn out to be novel — has written a work of fiction, if not in the contemporary sense.

The reader even witnesses him shaping the story of his life in real time, most strikingly when he effects a death-bed reconciliation with his father, complete with prayers and hymn-singing, and admits that, when he hears the news that his father will survive, “my relief was faintly tinged with disappointment that the perfect deathbed scene I’d choregraphed had been spoiled.”

The novelistic interplay between layers of self-conscious storytelling is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Original Sins, especially as it intertwines with Hill’s reflections on faith, and its deep influence on his ways of thinking, and writing. In an interview (Features, 30 September 2022), Hill described the Authorised Version and Wesley hymns as his “mother’s milk”. There are echoes of scriptural phraseology throughout this book, in which Hill reveals himself as a fascinating narrator, besides being at once protagonist and antagonist in a long and bruising fight.

Original Sins
Matt Rowland Hill
Vintage £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.89

Listen to an interview with Matt Rowland Hill on the Church Times Podcast

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