Matt Rowland Hill’s turbulent debut plunges the reader irresistibly into the hell that followed his adolescent rejection of a taboo-laden upbringing as an evangelical Christian in south Wales. The descent is steep: when his parents move to the home counties, sending him on a scholarship to boarding school, he seems set fair for the upward mobility his fretful mother has scrimped to secure. But his next stop, Oxford, is where he first injects heroin, heralding a decade of dependency, criminality and near-death as he sinks ever deeper.
Part of what makes Original Sins so electric from the off (witness the prologue in which, aged 30, he’s frantically shooting up at a funeral) is how often Rowland Hill lets us see him lying: twice in the first three pages. No better way to earn a reader’s trust on the page, and it’s engaging, too, that he bucks the trend of literary nonfiction by avoiding any noodling digressions on, say, famous writer addicts or “studies have shown” commentary: instead Rowland Hill, now almost 40, puts us in his headspace as he lived it, 100% real-time torment.
The artfully structured chapters, built from engrossing scenes sustained in large part by dialogue, usually open on an alarming predicament (a bout of withdrawal-fuelled diarrhoea at the aforementioned funeral, for instance, or trying to blag his way through customs in Israel while carrying methadone) before Rowland Hill rewinds the action in order to spool forward again with novelistic verve. Indeed, had Original Sins not been subtitled A Memoir, you might take it for fiction, although if it was invented, you’d raise an eyebrow at the plot. How he actually first came to use heroin beggars belief; ditto, that the savvy girlfriend he shares a flat with in London could possibly leave him alone with her suitcase full of cash savings.
Rowland Hill isn’t playing a blame game, even if he suggests he was fundamentally unmoored by his parents, themselves poisonously unhappy with each other. His father is a baptist minister whose fluency in the pulpit is a source of childhood pride, then teenage scorn, as – craving nothing other than a crafty fag in peace – Rowland Hill Sr bats away his son’s increasingly insistent theological quizzing, fuelled by a sleepless night devouring Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker. Still more painful is the boy’s early sense of disappointing his mother, frazzled in her turn by four kids as she obsessively monitors her Tesco Clubcard points as well as the ever-present threat of satanism.
The title oozes irony: whether stealing someone’s credit card, or snatching a moment as a hormonal teen with the underwear models in the Marks & Spencer catalogue, the transgressions laid bare hardly represent uncharted waters, however murky. But what makes the book tick is Rowland Hill’s willingness to send up his own sense of exceptionalism. At times he’s akin to the pratfalling protagonist in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, not least on that Israel trip, when he joins his parents at a religious conference while secretly hoping to cop off with a pastor’s daughter and maybe “write something meaningful” about the occupation while he’s at it; instead, he ends up trying to score in Bethlehem.
But the richest, most painful comedy comes when he isn’t openly guying himself: see the passage describing the unique agony of waiting for his dealer, just as his mother’s texting to say she hasn’t heard from him but is still free to meet if he wants; he deletes the message, thinking only of his fix, calming his jitters by “trying to practise the act of quiet noticing”.
Allowing us to notice how little Rowland Hill notices is key to Original Sins’ effects. It reminded me of Gabriel Krauze’s autobiographical novel of gang violence, Who They Was: here is another dramatic coming-of-age tale doubling as a stealth portrait of family breakdown, and parenting from the point of view of the parented, as well as an account of the peculiar dislocations of class-crossing in which the protagonist is an outsider wherever he is, whether that’s a halfway house or a college quad. And like Krauze, Rowland Hill is a blazing talent whose next move isn’t obvious; his memoir’s poised ending, cleverly capturing the nature of recovery as partial and continuing, makes clear the question isn’t only literary.