There’s been a lot of hype around this book–and a movie which I’ve only seen a few scenes from–so I’m hesitant to write about it. Do I have anything new or useful to say? Does anyone even care about this book anymore? Am I selling out somehow by writing about a popular novel?
Answers to these may vary depending on the day.
But then I thought of one very important question: Is this a novel worth talking about?
That question was much easier to answer because yes, there are so many things in this novel that deserve to be talked about.
WARNING: this is going to get a little spoiler-y since something pretty big happens in the first chapter. I’m going to have to talk about it in order for anything about this novel to make sense. Plus, it’s in the first chapter so I think that makes it fair game.
Before I get started writing about this novel I have to come clean: I had a certain expectation for this novel since it was a YA novel. I know, I know, I shouldn’t make such assumptions and I’ve read enough mind-blowing YA novels that I should have a much higher expectation than I did–but I didn’t. Especially since Khalil is introduced in a very typical boy-meets-girl kind of way. I mean, the novel opens up at a party and a cute boy from the protagonist’s past shows up, but she already has a boyfriend! That’s a classic love-triangle setup.
Which is why I was completely shocked by Khalil’s death.
Not only did it break whatever assumptions I had made in that first chapter but it was incredible how quickly Thomas made me a) care about this character, and b) convinced me that he would be a significant part of the story. While the latter wasn’t exactly true in the way I thought it would be, that’s an incredible feat. After all, there are authors that take a whole novel to explain who a character is and I never end up liking them.
What took me the most by surprise when reading this novel was when Starr’s neighborhood was described. My first response was to remind myself that I was reading a piece of fiction and that this place was fictional. And while the exact place might have been fictional, the basic characteristics weren’t.
I’ve had the privilege of growing up in a tiny place where I think maybe one unnatural death happened–and it was accidental–in the whole time I lived there. Perhaps some of it was kept from me as a child, but there couldn’t have been very much crime in general. Speeding tickets is probably the highest crime there was.
My thoughts throughout the novel went from “a place like this can’t exist in North America” to “a place like this shouldn’t exist”. Teenagers shouldn’t feel like they need to sell drugs because that’s the only way to survive. They should be able to go to a school that will enlighten their future–that’s what schooling is for.
They should feel that the people who’s job it is to protect them are actually going to protect them.
The scene were Starr is going through the steps of what to do if a police officer pulls her over–steps she knows very well–is heartbreaking to me. While my heart rate certainly goes up when I interact with police, it’s never been to this extent–never pure fear for one’s life.
Because, I’m Caucasian.
A lot of privilege comes with that and most of the time I don’t realize it.
That’s the problem. We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?
There are so many things in this novel that I’m not only not a part of but that I felt I didn’t have a place in because it deals with things I’ll never have to deal with myself. But that’s exactly why this novel matters. I can be all about equality but that doesn’t mean I actually understand what I’m talking about. This story made me understand that what I thought was wrong.
North America really likes to talk big about itself. Freedom, equality, prosperity; these are words and concepts that get thrown around. These are fine goals to have. The problem is that we can be blind to the fact that accomplishing some of these some of the time, and in some places, isn’t the same as achieving the goal. I can be blind too because I want to believe this world is better than it is.
I think there are many people who could benefit from reading this novel. Not just because it’s well written. Not just because there are compelling characters and plot lines. But because it points to very real things that are still happening in the world and places the reader in the middle of it. Because it should break your heart and make you look around you and wonder how much was fiction and how much was fact.