In Review

Book of the week: Original Sins by Matt Rowland Hill

This addiction memoir is written with such ‘novelistic verve’ that you could mistake it for fiction

Matt Rowland Hill’s “turbulent debut” is “electric from the off”, said Anthony Cummins in The Observer. His memoir of addiction begins with him injecting heroin at a funeral – plunging the reader “irresistibly” into its hellish story.

The son of an oppressively strict Welsh Baptist minister, Hill attended a state comprehensive before winning a scholarship to a well-known public school, where he felt out of place. At Oxford, he became addicted to heroin, “heralding a decade of dependency, criminality and near-death”. 

Original Sins is written with such “novelistic verve” that you could easily mistake it for fiction, though some of the details might make you raise an eyebrow. “How he first came to use heroin beggars belief” – he was introduced to it by a homeless man – as does the fact that a “savvy girlfriend” left him alone in her London flat “with her suitcase full of cash savings”.

The book is evidence of a “blazing talent” and it’s written, refreshingly, without the “noodling digressions” that have become fashionable in non-fiction (there are, for instance, no asides on “famous writer addicts”).

Original Sins is “hardly original”, though, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. Stuffed in here is “every trope of the memoir boom from the past 15 years”: the tale of middle-class drug addiction; the “fish-out-of-water angle”; the oppressive evangelical background. “And yet, despite the déjà vu, this book is brilliant.”

It succeeds because of Hill’s “lacerating candour”, and because his writing “shimmers off the page”. Here, “the night sweats are sweatier, the Bible stuff more granular and the class angle queasier than anything you will have read before”.

Hill’s account of his Swansea childhood is especially riveting, said Kevin Power in Literary Review. Both his parents were fervent evangelical Christians, though his mother’s devotion to Jesus was rivalled by her love for “special offers”. As he tells it, his parents’ marriage was poisonous: he gives us a flavour in a “superbly done” early chapter, where a family car trip descends into a vicious argument “via weaponised scriptural quotation”. (“Woman,” Hill recalls his father saying, “if you died tonight, I’d dance on your grave.”)

In adolescence, Hill embraced his parents’ zealotry, while also “frenetically masturbating” (“a short, hilarious section on this topic reads like a Welsh Christian’s Portnoy’s Complaint”). Original Sins is “a classic addiction memoir”, in that it does closely observe the rules of the genre. But it’s so good that “it might also become a classic in the other sense of the word”.

Chatto & Windus 320pp £16.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99

Original Sins: A Memoir by Matt Roland Hill
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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