Author: Jennifer Brown
Genre: Contemporary | Young Adult | Psychological
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5 out of 5 stars – This book was captivating, and the writing was honest and heart-wrenching. Telling the story of not just one girl, but a community, after a mass shooting at the local high school, this booking explores loss, hope and recovering. After such a traumatic event, most of the inhabitants of this town are changed, but what I think was best about the novel is that some of these characters were not. Realistically, tragedy affects people in many different ways, and while we would all hope that people would reflect and become better people, that is not always the case. On the other hand, this book is not depressing and it does not lack hope, it is just honest. Some people change, some people reflect, and some, do not.
Five months after the tragic mass shooting at Garvin High School, Valerie Leftman returns to school, without her boyfriend, Nick Levell. Levell, who was responsible for taking the lives of his classmates and his own. Levell, who Valerie loved, and misses. Valerie must learn to cope with the effects of her relationship with Nick, of his actions, and of her own guilt and grief, as the town tries to recover and move on from the events of May 2nd, 2008.
“Being pretty isn’t everything, but sometimes being ugly is.”
“She handed the books to me and I leaned over to take them. They felt heavy in my palms. I liked the feeling of it. For once the future seemed heavier than the past.”
The story is written using a mixture of present tense prose, flashbacks and newspaper reports. I enjoyed this authentic style, which I felt reflected the fragmented way in which Valerie thought about the shooting and the memories which occurred to her of a time before May 2nd. The addition of the newspaper reports framed the introduction of certain characters, in a very clever way, juxtaposing the media presentation of victims, and victimhood, against the everyday view of real people. Some of the characters are given accurate portrayals, others are made into saints, ignoring all of their personal wrong-doings. I think this was a very good touch. It isn’t victim blaming, but it does show how media reporting after a tragedy can be inherently flawed.
I thought Valerie was a captivating character who explores her emotions thoroughly throughout the text. I was glad that Brown had been afraid to make comments that may have been controversial, some reviewers accused her of romanticising the shooter in this novel, but I don’t think she does. There is a careful line that she strikes here between humanising the shooter, and ensuring that she never justifies his ultimate devastating act. Makes sense, that Valerie would feel so conflicted, the boy she knew was so much more than this one single event. She had watched him suffer, watched him be bullied, and feel pain, and importantly, she had suffered this too. She had also experienced those moments of intelligence, clarity and happiness with him. But Valerie struggles to reconcile this with someone who could walk in and take away the lives of others, and make others that miserable. She is angry at him, she is confused, she loves him, and she feels guilty about feeling anything other than hate for him. And I understand this. She didn’t see it coming, and how many people also say that they never do? In retrospect, the signs are there, and it is possible to have seen it coming, but hindsight is a fantastic thing and something that we never get until it’s too late.
I don’t find Valerie to have been overly whiny either – which is something else I’ve seen in reviews – in fact, I thought her characterisation was incredibly strong. She doesn’t give in to victimhood, and she weathers the storm of being blamed, but ultimately, she is able not to blame herself. No one likes to spread vitriol or hate, but feeling like you’re being constantly picked on, or made to outcast yourself, does leave people needing a way to vent and while Valerie’s original attempt, the Hate List, is not a perfect way to do this, it is completely normal and realistic. Some kind of journalistic way to shout and scream at the world that she feels mistreated, without causing actual harm. Her new attempt – a sketchbook and painting so she can vent her emotions – is not really all that different, because honestly, although shooting people isn’t therapy, writing down your frustrations and allowing them to be released, is.
Valerie’s parents are another story, however. I thought they were incredibly destructive, but I also got it. Destructive, a set of parents that I really disliked, but also, a set of parents that I understand and that I felt were a little bit too real. Her mother is overprotective, but not just because she fears for Valerie, also because she fears her, and this is extremely hard to hear. It was one of the saddest parts for me, but also a part of the novel I felt was very important. How does a parent – who has clearly been blind to, and neglecting their child, for so long – learn to trust again after something like this. I think the mother changes by the end, grows, in small but significant ways that are a credit to how Brown wrote the character. As for Valerie’s father… He feels seriously evil. An interview with the author, at the end of my edition, notes that she is often asked about the father, and people feel he is far more of a villain than Nick. I think this is true. It isn’t that Brown does a bad job of humanising the father, it is just that he is inherently a selfish human. He blames his 17-year-old daughter for being a 17 year old. For not being absolutely perfect, for getting in the way by virtue of simply existing, and I feel for Valerie so much at those moments. This type of selfishness is despicable, and I have no doubt that, whether Brown intended it or not, he is the biggest villain in this novel.
As for the other characters in the book. They added to the story. There was guilt, there was blame, there was forgiveness, there was variety. I think that is vitally important. No one reacts in the same one dimensional way. No one knows how to feel, and there is no right way to feel. I liked that we got to see this while we were hearing Valerie’s story. I also like that Valerie is very sensitive to their emotions. That the lesson Valerie really learned from this, was not that you shouldn’t hate, or that everyone was nice, but how to humanise even the monsters, and see a little deeper – especially when that meant avoiding some of them in the end. I also don’t think Valerie had a victim mentality, I think she owned it, and other characters owned their part too. While no one is to blame for the tragedy ultimately except Nick and his bad decisions, characters recognised that all their actions have ripples, and maybe you should think about these before tossing that pebble out there.
Finally, the ending. I thought this was apt, and probably necessary, though this is the only part of the novel that I didn’t wholly buy into. I don’t think, no matter how much a town reflects, anyone would have been memorialising Nick Levell. I think the novel does a good job at showing us that there are two sides to what we see as ‘evil’and that not everything is black and white, but that bit I just don’t buy. Similarly, I don’t really think there can ever be a way back between Valerie and her father. I understand his reaction to the shooting, but the point was, he was like that before any of this happened, he was selfish before that happened, and his response to such a tragedy was to blame rather than aid his daughter, blame her because she made his life a little bit less easy. But I do love the open ending. The sense of possibility, and the reality that Val knows that no one will want to come back to this, that this will just have to be over now. I do think there is a hopeful end to it, a sense that life continues, as it should, and I think that is a vital message.
Brown has been asked if she would ever write a version of this story for Nick Levell’s point of view, and her opinion is that she could not do so without going to extremely dark places to try and justify the thoughts of a mass murderer, and I agree. I think she did a good job at presenting enough of Nick here to make the reader interrogate any bias’s without justifying the final act. So I’m glad that she will not write it from his view.
This was a book that I really regretted reading public. I could not hold back the tears at the end, and I felt cathartic and satisfied. I think that this is an important book to show others who have been through tragedies that there is no right or wrong way to feel and that there is a future once eventually, but it takes time. Do I think this book will ever change people’s thoughts on gun crime – no – but I do think that it isn’t about that. I think Hate List is about how to deal with guilt, loss, and pain. It does its job – brilliantly.
If you liked this…
I would read 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher or All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. Both books deal with extremely difficult topics of suicide, loss, grief, tragedy and hope. They can be hard books to read, and I don’t think they glorify suicide or violence. I think their focus is on how to cope, which is why they important to read.