Well, I’ve finally jumped aboard the John Grisham bandwagon. Most recently I finished The Chamber, a book exploring the world of the death penalty. Grisham’s writing style stood out to me as unique, so I thought I’d blog about it. (If you haven’t read this book yet, please be warned that this post contains spoilers!)

When I went to look up reviews for this book after finishing it, I discovered that many of Grisham’s fans really don’t like it. Apparently his more fast-paced legal thrillers are what drew a majority of his audience, and these readers disapproved of the slower, non-twisty nature of The Chamber. 

Maybe it’s just because I read some of Grisham’s slower-paced books first (The Chamber, The Last Juror, The King of Torts), but I actually rather like the writing style he displays in them. There’s something almost meditative in the slow, matter-of-fact descriptions of people, places, and events that reminds me of classic works of literature.

I also find the slow pacing appropriate to the content of the book. Sam Cayhall, the condemned prisoner, has spent almost a decade waiting around to die. His lawyer, Adam, spends most of the book waiting to hear from various courts on the status of his appeals. The slow pacing of The Chamber allows the reader to really experience time passing and explore the way these two characters are living from day to day. From the dull quiet of Sam’s existence on death row, all the way to the gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing sense of anxiety as the characters wait at the eleventh hour to hear if the execution will be postponed, Grisham doesn’t just tell you what it’s like to be there–he lets you experience it.

Another seemingly common criticism of the book is that the anti-death-penalty message isn’t strong enough. Sam Cayhall isn’t likeable, Adam isn’t particularly likeable either, etc. etc. Some readers argue that Grisham didn’t do a good job of making his point.

The thing is, I’m not sure that he was making a particular point, either for or against the death penalty. Sure, the main characters are against it, but even they go back and forth in their beliefs a few times. Toward the end, Sam Cayhall actually prefers to die rather than live the rest of his life on the Row. As Adam learns about Sam’s past, he starts to wonder if Sam should die for his crimes after all. Most interestingly, the progression of events in the book–the constant denying of appeals, the repeated beating down of Sam’s hope for a reprieve, the remorse and healing brought on by the fear of death–make the actual execution feel almost like a relief. Finally, it’s over. Finally, there is peace.

Are the characters still opposed to the death penalty? Yes. Emotionally, do they seem glad it’s over? Yes. This weird dichotomy is the reason I decided to blog about this book. The Chamber seems to possess the ability to make people on both sides of the issue change their minds. Are you for the death penalty? Read this book, and you might have second thoughts. Are you against it? Read this book, and you might have second thoughts. A book that can make you question and even reverse your opinion in both directions? That’s some pretty intense writing.

Like you would hold a prism up to a light source, Grisham holds up the issue and turns it around so that you can examine it from different angles. He doesn’t push any particular viewpoint; he just shows it to you. Then he shows you another. And another. And another.

Eventually you aren’t sure what to believe, and you have to sit down and do some serious thinking to iron out your opinions. This is exactly what the characters do in the book. You’re fighting through the thoughts and emotions of the situation right alongside them. You may not agree with their final conclusions, but you’re going through the same thing.

Therein lies the strength of this book, in my opinion. By putting forth multiple viewpoints from a collection of less-than-trustworthy characters, Grisham forces you to wrestle with your own doubts and insecurities surrounding this moral issue. He doesn’t make it easy for you to figure out what you’re supposed to believe at the end. He doesn’t tell you what to feel. He makes you work that out for yourself.

Given that this is how moral issues get resolved in the real world, I consider this a pretty impressive example of reader engagement, and I give major kudos to Mr. Grisham for writing such a thought-provoking novel. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to check it out. It’s not a quick read, and it’s not an easy read, but if you enjoy critical thinking and don’t mind doing some serious self-examination, it’s definitely a worthwhile one.

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