Thursday, June 9, 2016

Jennifer the Damned by Karen Ullo

Jennifer the Damned
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't recall how this book got on my radar but it immediately piqued my interest. A teenage vampire, adopted by nuns, who goes to Catholic school, and yearns for the chance to take Communion ... with many reviews at Amazon praising it as "literature, rich with vampire lore and intertwined with Catholic doctrine." I was thrilled when the author offered me a review copy.

Sixteen year old Jennifer Carshaw, isn't living in a world where vampires are taken as a matter of fact. The nuns had no idea why their adopted charge would only eat raw meat.

With her unusual background, Jennifer's got full knowledge of good and evil. She also, which is more important, longs for the capacity to experience true love and closeness to God. All of which are impossible for someone without a soul. This provides a rich background for a fast-paced horror novel which is also funny, intelligent, and spiritually deep.

It is a YA novel so when we meet Jennifer she's worrying about the usual high school problems. This is no sparkly vampire tale. When Jennifer matures into a full-fledged vampire the true horror unfolds as she spirals out of control, pinging between good and evil desires.

This is also when the true horror unfolds for the reader. We've learned to like Jennifer by this point and watching her become evil is hard to take. The lack of a soul has real consequences and we see the devastating trail of destruction.

In fact, there was one point where I put the book down, distressed by my inability to reconcile Jennifer's decisions with the character I loved. It took me months to pick it up again. However, I am very glad that I finally did. The author opens the door for the reader to really grapple with evil, deliberate sin, the consequences of lost hope, and redemption. This is all done with full belief in Catholic dogma but without ever hitting the reader over the head with religion, believe it or not.

I didn't love some of the more obvious YA elements such as all the romances and vignettes of high school at the beginning. However, I'm not the book's prime audience and I've ignored much worse in pursuit of a good story. Since this is an excellent story, they are indeed minor quibbles.

To give you a sample, here is the bit where I knew I was really in for a unique ride.
What happens during Mass — more specifically, during Holy Communion — is one of the most contentious issues between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics believe that, during the Eucharist, bread and wine are transformed into the actual Body and Blood of Jesus, in accordance with the words He spoke at the Last Supper. Most Protestants believe Jesus was speaking in metaphor and Communion is merely a symbol. Centuries of holy wars could have been avoided if people had just invited a vampire to Mass. If the Catholics were right — if the Eucharist was really the Blood of the Son of God — then it would send us into a frothing, rabid rage.

Which, of course, it does.

My mother had discovered this truth for herself nine hundred years ago. She was walking past a tiny, rustic church in France when a scent slammed against her olfactory nerves, so overpowering that she burst through the doors and killed six people just by throwing them out of her way. As she snatched the holy chalice from the altar, one single purple drop still glistened in the golden cup.

"I am only alive today, Jennifer," she said, "because I found the strength not to drink it. That one drop would have satisfied a thousand years of thirst ‚ and that one drop would have killed me."
It is rare to find a book of this calibre. Having just finished rereading Dracula for the umpteenth time before I finished this book, I've had "the blood is the life" resonating in my head for days.

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