Without giving too much away, I can say that the book is about the struggle to become a whole person despite a life of appalling brutality and trauma. Jamie Sommers--a semi-literate orphan, a petty criminal, a crafty wretch--sails around the world with his friend and mentor--a charming Irishman but a real bastard--before winding up in a mental hospital in New England, where he teeters on the edge of complete mental disintegration. There he acquires another, even more sinister, benefactor/father figure. There are also two psychiatrists, one humane and ethical, the other manipulative and ambitious, who vie for control of his case. His struggle to build an identity independent of these powerful influences is a lot like an adolescent coming of age story.
The book has gotten some bad reviews and I understand why. You could call it sentimental and confused. There's a supernatural element some people might have a hard time accepting. But Jamie is an unforgettable character and that has to count for something. I felt him clutching desperately at anything that could hold his world together. It may not be the kind of book that stands up to critical analysis, but the emotional punch it packs is honest. You can tell that writing it was a labor of love and obsession, that the author was handling a live wire, that her characters were telling her what to do. It has a dream-like, hallucinatory intensity.
The reader on the Brilliance Audio production is excellent. He can really do accents and his performance was as powerfully emotional as the text called for. Some of the lesser characters seemed a little overly stylized to my ears, but the three main voices were distinct and pitch-perfect. I bet it was a joy to read, as Hinton has a great ear for vernacular speech.
I'm not sure who among my friends would like this book, but I found it very affecting.