I have been trying to figure out what I want to say about this book for literally months now, and I just can’t do it. I give up. The amount of things I want to say are all swirling around in my brain and getting mixed up with each other, and everything is coming out all garbled whenever I try, so I give up and am now officially half-assing this review in a stream of consciousness manner with no regards for structure, and I am no longer going to worry about trying to say everything I want to. Dill with it.
This has been touted as “The Black Lives Matter” book, and I guess that’s right if you want to essentialize it down to basic components, but I’ve been thinking more as I get older how much I hate when people essentialize films or books or TV shows, whether it’s narrowing a complex work down to a single theme, or even just talking about a story in terms of tropes. Thinking about stories only in terms of what they have in common with other stories is useful in some ways, but if that’s all you’re doing, things are going to get lost. Individual stories aren’t great or failures because of the “tropes” they include, but because of the individual specific details inherent only to those stories. And this book, for me, had so many of those small, personal details that make for good stories, that’s why it succeeds, and not because of its subject matter alone.
Though the subject matter is certainly compelling and highly relevant. Duh doi.
This book is made of lovely small moments that add up to a complex whole. Here are some of the details I appreciated the most (of which I will be missing many because I waited so dang long to write this):
- Angie Thomas’s voice. Holy shit, she can write! So, so many YA books have this generic (often female) voice that is indistinguishable when you pass from one author to another, or one book to another. What these books are missing is a voice, a style unique to a particular artist. Something that makes it come alive as a piece of art representing real humans. Thomas has that in spades. Starr (the main character) was fleshed out for me in personality by the end of three pages. I just knew who she was, and I hadn’t read any voice like hers* before. Individual people may not mesh well with Thomas’s style and then interpret their individual tastes to mean that the book is universally bad (something that happens frequently when art has a distinctive style), but I think that’s horseshit. Not everyone will like every book, and it’s neither the fault of the book, the reader, nor all the people who hyped** it.
- Starr’s struggles to balance her behavior and identity when caught between the two worlds of the white prep school she attends, and the poor black neighborhood where she and her family live was so well done. Her white and black friends are separated. Her boyfriend is white, and though she feels like she can be the most herself around him of all her white friends, she still holds the “ugly” and “scary” parts of herself and her life back from him. Even within her family, some of whom live in the richer white neighborhoods, she’s divided. The loss of a childhood friendship was particularly poignant.
- The nuanced way Thomas treats the shooting and all the people involved. Even the characters who express racist (either aggressively or unknowingly in a more institutionalized way) ideas are given shades of grey, acknowledging that they are people caught in a system. And of course, the reverse, how she brilliantly portrays the humans being kept down by a racist system without getting in any way didactic or “preachy” about it.
- The characters, oh man. Starr’s family is my favorite. Her parents, holy shit. Parents are scarce a lot of the times in YA anyway for some reason, but often even when they’re there, they aren’t used very well. But Starr’s parents are such an integral part of this narrative, and Thomas writes them to be real people, funny and frustrating and complex.
- The way she writes about Khalil, the shooting victim, versus the way she writes about people reacting to him. And the way she writes Starr not as some martyr or someone acting in an idealized manner, like some sort of saint. She’s a real teenaged girl reacting to an extremely difficult situation in an emotionally realistic way. Starr is scared, and lost, and unsure. She wants to believe she would do the right thing, but her fear gets in the way. The real life consequences get in the way.
- It’s funny! Even amidst sadness and terror and banality, Thomas has a way of inserting humor in just the right places, to alleviate tension, and to allow us moments to bond with her characters.
- My book club was divided a little on the ending. SPOILERS Some of them felt it was a little unrealistic for it to have ended so happily (relatively; a true happy ending would have involved the shooter being punished, and everyone involved acknowledging the situation, and coming up with a plan to combat the effects of institutionalized racism and gun violence disproportionately affecting young black men). But this is YA, and this is art, and for how true most of the book is to the realism of the situation, I felt it had earned the right to paint a little optimism on the otherwise bleak cultural landscape. So the gangster/drug lord/wife beater gets what’s coming to him in the end, as his community stands up for itself END SPOILERS.
*I’m going to admit right now that I know I need to read more books by people of color, and specifically by black people. I try to read all types of books, and I’d like to think that my eclectic/diverse tastes in terms of genre have led me to read from more diverse (racially and culturally) authors more than your average extremely white person has, but I know I need to read more. I also know that there is a lack of books of this type for me to read, and that’s not on me, but on the publishing industry to publish more books from all kinds of people. I know that I need to read more diversely still because the beginning of this book for me was a bit of a culture shock, in how the characters speak, especially. That more than anything was a wake up call, because for how many weird worlds I’m introduced to in fantasy and sci-fi, they weren’t half as emotionally jarring as realizing a reflection of the real world I live in felt almost as far away from my experience as one with unicorns and wizards. This is why we need diverse books, because all of those things are surface, and very quickly became normalized as I read; I went from feeling vaguely alien (as Starr herself must feel at times, as a character torn between several worlds) to forgetting almost entirely about my surface differences from the characters, who spoke, lived and acted differently from me. This is what good art does, it reminds us that despite differences we’re all, in the end, just people.
**I believe that I shall go to my grave screaming THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS HYPE. There are only people who genuinely love a book, and people should be able to acknowledge that just because they don’t like something that is popular, it’s not because it’s “overhyped” or the hype is wrong. Nope, you just didn’t like a thing, and it’s not a big deal.
All in all, highly recommend this book, and I can’t wait to see what Angie Thomas writes next.