Nothing about Original Sins, Matt Rowland Hill’s memoir and first book, should work. Or rather, it should work, but in such a smooth-grooved, unsurprising, seen-it-all-before way that it would fail to stir much excitement. Stuffed in here is every trope of the memoir boom from the past 15 years. First comes the story of middle-class drug addiction, as Hill’s promising young life is reduced to waiting in scary inner-city parks for a boy in a hoodie to drop off a wicked little packet. Then there is the oppressively evangelical upbringing – Hill is the son of a Welsh Baptist minister and his equally zealous wife, whose idea of fun is denouncing Darwin and shouting bits of scripture at each other in the car. And then there’s the fish-out-of-water angle, when Hill gets a scholarship from his state comprehensive to a famous school (never named but easily sourced online and it really is a properly famous one, with penguin suits, fagging and Latin prep). And finally there’s the title, Original Sins, which is hardly original.
And yet, despite all the deja vu, this book is brilliant. The writing shimmers off the page, so that the night sweats are sweatier, the Bible stuff more granular and the class angle queasier than anything you will have read before. Put them all together, add lashings of humour and lacerating candour, and you have a propulsive book – and an informative one too. Depending on where your knowledge gaps lie, you will either learn how to inject yourself with class A drugs or be able to reach for Titus 2 verses 4 and 5 every time you need a reason for snapping off the car radio.
What saves Original Sins from generic familiarity is that at its paradoxical heart lies a determinedly ordinary story of everyday family dysfunction. There is no abuse in the Hill family, no violence and no cruelty apart from the painful fact that the parents really can’t stand each other. While Rev Hill preaches charismatic sermons every Sunday on the theme of love and forgiveness, at home he shouts at his wife to fuck off before locking himself in his study with the cigarettes he claims never to smoke and a secret codeine habit.
Mrs Hill, meanwhile, is permanently angry about something (just what is never made clear), which began in the valleys of south Wales but has acquired extra layers of resentment as her unworldly yet upwardly mobile family moves from Swansea to Leighton Buzzard and then, of all places, Nazareth. Her only comfort now is coming up with ingenious justifications for the idea that Jesus actually turned the water into non-alcoholic wine.
No wonder that each of the four Hill children retreats into a silent, joyless place. By the end of the book, not one of them will go to church. Saddest of all is Jonathan, Hill’s younger brother, who follows in his footsteps to the famous school, comes out as gay and is encouraged by his parents to go to a conversion camp. Jonathan tartly names it “camp camp” and speculates whether it might in fact be a good way to meet boys.
One of the most astringent aspects of Original Sins is Rowland Hill’s willingness to be clear-eyed about the banality of recovery. Attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in a London church, he becomes infuriated by hearing the nostrum “one day at a time” repeated ad nauseam. “How else did they think you were expected to stay clean for an extended period? All at once? Working backwards from the end?”
Likewise in group therapy, again held in a repurposed chapel, Hill tries hard not to come over all smart alec when counsellors spout pap about addicts having a wounded inner child (he has read Middlemarch, twice, for heaven’s sake – surely they can do better?). Yet, in a devastating afterword written as his memoir went to press, Hill reveals how all the soppy nostrums of the recovery business turn out to be piercingly apt, at least in his case. Originality, it transpires, is vastly overrated.