Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Robert Dugoni is without a doubt one of the modern giants of literature, his novels earning him fame around the globe. Though he is generally accustomed to writing thrillers, he went in a different direction with The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, presenting us with a profound drama. The story is centred on the titular Sam, a boy who had the misfortune of being born with ocular albinism, branding him as an outcast from his earlier years. Now a few decades later, Sam looks back upon his life, uncertain of anything anymore, armed only with the will to make sense of the path he had to walk.
Table of contents
Robert Dugoni Switches Genres
Most professionals authors would agree it is better to specialize in a certain genre rather than spread out one’s efforts over the whole spectrum. After all, quality does trump quantity at the end of the day, and one can only become the best at something through consistent practice and a focused dedication of their time and efforts to the matter.
This isn’t a philosophy strictly reserved for literature, being observable in virtually any other career you might be able to think of. For this reason, it’s always quite curious to see what a celebrated author can come up with when moving out of their comfort zone, as Robert Dugoni did with The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.
Though Dugoni is generally known for writing thrillers, this book takes the completely different direction of being a pensive and introspective drama. The opening of the story presents us with the titular Sam as a young boy, born with ocular albinism, meaning he has red eyes. His mother enrolls him into a Catholic school, and it takes him very little time to earn the nickname “Devil Boy”.
From there on out, we witness his growth into an adult and the complicated path he had to endure, consistently standing up to bullies of all shapes and sizes and having to dig deep on more than one occasion. However, as Sam becomes older and wiser, he is also less certain in the rationalizations and explanations he came up with to justify his own fate, coming to a point where very little makes sense anymore. Now decades removed from his troublesome childhood, Sam embarks on a trip halfway around the world to try and salvage some sense and meaning to his existence, and perhaps help him to understand what it is which truly matters in this world.
Lessons on Self-Acceptance
This is the kind of story where identifying a single overlaying theme becomes a tad complicated as it deals with the vast and possibly infinite spectrum of psychological obstacles in life. Though the story does have its fair share of inspirational material, be prepared for most of it to be on the more tragic and depressing side; even if Sam finds the strength to endure his travails, it doesn’t render them nonexistent.
I will say he does ultimately make for the sort of protagonist who can actually inspire hope in the reader, largely due to the realistic nature of his struggles, observations, and overall approach to his own life. With all of this being said, if there is one strong message to take from this book, it’s the importance of self-acceptance no matter who you might be. We witness Sam struggle with his own identity from a very early age and how it ends up shaping him throughout the rest of his adult life, most importantly in his later adult years when he has some very tough events to walk through.
There comes a day in every man’s life when he stops looking forward and starts looking back.― Robert Dugoni, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell
While I’m certain the author seeks to push us to make our own reflections and conclusions, I personally felt he was trying to convey the idea of our identity being an ever-shifting and evolving concept, one to which things are constantly added to and subtracted from… something none but the owner can judge. Though life will often throw curveballs our way, at times foreseeable and at other unpredictable, we would do well to stay true to the person we know we are despite what the world might be trying to force on us.
Though Dugoni might have certainly decided to head in a new direction with this novel, there is no denying he can’t completely hide his thriller roots as they have certainly found their way onto the pages of this book. For starters, the pacing is actually quite fast, at least in comparison with other stories in this genre. More specifically, the chapters are always rather short and never sprawl out to more than one or two topics.
Everything is structured in a very neat and orderly manner, with each and every scene having a clear purpose, a specific obstacle which needs to be dealt with. While at first I will admit this manner felt a tad robotic for my liking, I eventually learned to enjoy it for culling down on what could have been some long, heavy and boring moments. While not every author would be able to make good use of such a writing style in this genre, I found it perfectly meshed with Dugoni‘s aptitudes.
While much of this book is indeed centred on introspective reflections, the plot never stagnates or fails to progress forward for too long. The author knows what it takes to keep readers interested, and with every few pages we are presented with some new developments which create new sources of conflict and problems for Sam.
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As a matter of fact, much to my liking, Dugoni didn’t even dwell too much on the side characters revolving around Sam, even the more important ones, preferring to focus on them in terms of their relation to the main character and the lessons he ends up learning from them. The fact Dugoni uses a very simple language also plays dividend in making this book into a page-turner, especially since he has the strange aptitude of being able to convey the most complex of thoughts with it.
The Final Verdict
A The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell book review isn’t the easiest thing to write, and thus many defaulted to comparing it with a John Irving book. While generally I would call this too high of a praise, I feel like this specific book actually deserves it quite well. It gives us an engaging and thought-provoking story about growth, self-acceptance, honour, family dignity and redemption, all written in a simple and enjoyable style which will have you at the end of the book before you know it.
If you are a fan of Dugoni or enjoy these types of stories in general, then you can hardly afford to miss out on one of the more highly-praised works of writing this year.
Life is about heart. Yours is as big as any kid’s I’ve ever coached. Don’t you ever forget that.― Robert Dugoni, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell
Robert Dugoni is an American author whose novels have appeared on bestsellers lists in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BookSense and Amazon. Sold in over 25 countries worldwide, they include highly-acclaimed works such as My Sister’s Grave , Her Final Breath, The Trapped Girl and The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.
Over the course of his career he has won the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s Literary Award on two occasions as well as the winner of the 2015 Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction, as well as a slew of other awards and nominations.