Friday, November 30, 2012

Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Valerie has a hole in her leg.  She was shot by her boyfriend the same day Nick decided he was fed up with a lot of things and opened fire at school.  She'll have a lingering physical pain and a limp the rest of her life, but it's the days that immediately follow the shooting that will determine the quality and length of what is to be 'the rest of her life.'

Val occupies as unique space in the minds' of the Garvin High School community: she's the hero, she talked Nick down, and got him to stop shooting.  The bullet she took wasn't meant for her rather someone else.  She is also the instigator of the shooting and only barely manages to fall just short of co-conspirator.  Never being the popular kid, Val starts a list of all the things she hates.  Most things on the list are abstract ideas or intangible concepts like algebra, or her parents arguing.  Other items on the list are people: teachers she doesn't like; students who think it's funny to make fun of Nick and beat him up in public; students who call Val names everyday; that break her MP3 player for no reason; students that take exception to the fact Nick's family socio-economic status doesn't resemble their own.  Physically making the list was a form of venting for Val.  When she shared it with Nick he took things to a level she never foresaw.

As Val goes forward with her senior year in high school there is an ambivalence about how she is regarded.  She is on both sides of the coin: some try to ignore her, others wish her dead, and though none speak the words aloud all thank her for putting an end to things when she did.  She doesn't have any friends, not even the ones she used to have.  She's incapable of making new ones due to both how others regard her and her own anxiety.  Her parents suffer her presence and that is about a subtly as their relationship can be put.  Her brother has days of acceptance and disgust.  She feels alone and--circumstances being what they are--in truth, she is.

Guilt is one of the novel's pervasive themes that unified may characters and, at least for me, proved very difficult to identify.  One of the surviving victims had been a very good friend of Nick's up until a year or so before the shooting.  She wanted to be accepted and popular and turned her back on him as running him down was the trendy thing to do.  Her guilt and her wounds take her in completely different directions from Val's.  It's not just the shooting victims that are left alive, but every student in the school has a moment of self-examination where they consider the treatment of their peers and how they, collectively, let things get this far; how it could be fun to treat someone as they had.  If they weren't involved in the abuse did they enable the shooting by doing nothing?  As is to be expected, Val's guilt trumps all others.  She was so close to Nick yet how had she not seen that he had this in him?  The most interesting aspect is Val trying to understand how nothing has changed.  She may have never wanted anyone dead but Val still doesn't like the guys that beat up Nick or the girls that teased her and ran her down.  Big surprise: they still don't like her either.  Almost every interaction that Val has with everyone is an awkward stalemate or has regressed to a state of revulsion.

Val's journey takes her from the hospital, to the psychiatric ward, and finally home under the close supervision of her psychiatrist, who surprisingly, becomes the first friend she makes in months.  (As an aside, it's nice to see someone in therapy and actually benefit from their sessions.) 

The author also gives some interesting food for thought concerning personal responsibility, upbringing, and environmental factors that played a part in the tragedy and in Val's healing process.  How much should Val own up to?  After all she didn't pull the trigger.  Did she come have horrible parents?  (Yes.)  Did they raise her to be a monster?  (Moot-ish...)  Did all the jerks at school deserve to be reprimanded?  Should anyone have been surprised that the bullied kid had a breaking point even if he possessed an high tolerance for poor treatment? 

Every relationship she is in has changed.  And the resolution for all of them is nebulous.

     "He hates me," I said.
     Mom looked up sharply.  "You're his daughter.  He loves you."
     I rolled my eyes.  "You have to say that.  But I know the truth, Mom.  He hates me.  Do you hate me too?  Does everyone in the world hate me now?"
     "You're being silly now, Valerie," she said.  She got up and picked up her purse.  "I'm going to go down and grab myself a sandwich.  Can I bring you anything?"
     I shook my head, and as Mom left a thought flashed through my head like a strobe light: She hadn't said no.  page 164

The above passage is the start of her declining relationship with her parents...

And yet the novel doesn't work itself into one huge cathartic moment that is saved just for the end.  There are bright spots along the way that give hope that something positive can come out of Val's life. 

     "Hey, Val," he said, sitting up.  "You're home."
     "Hey.  Like your hair.  Maximum height on those spikes today."
     He grinned, ran his hand over his head.  "That's what Tina said," he said.  Like nothing had ever happened.  Like I didn't still smell like the hospital.  Like I wasn't a suicidal freak come home to make his life miserable.
     At that moment, Frankie was the best brother anyone could have asked for.  Page 184

Everything felt real; every single aspect, and I haven't the slightest clue as to how Brown pulled this off: Val's confusion, and self-loathing, her relationship with her parents, her brother, the other students, her integration back into society, and how she gets along with her Dr. was a particular achievement.  There was all of one superfluous character and while she stood out like a bright purple thumb she was so trivial as to be easily written off.

Hate List wasn't merely gripping and visceral but convincing to the point where you might think a school shooting victim that has lived in Val's shoes wrote an account of their life and tried to pass it off as fiction.  It's one of those books that you live for the duration of the few days it takes to get through.    

Hate List isn't even the book that put Jennifer Brown on my radar only Perfect Escape was already checked out at the library and I was gonna be number forty something in the queue so I picked this up inside.  How much did I like Hate List?  I'm not waiting in the queue for anything else Brown writes.  She's now on the day-one purchase list.    


Marion said...

Wow, it sounds intense, and valuable. I will have to find this one.

Marion said...

In the end of Empire Falls, the main character's daughter is caught up in a school shooting and she was friends with the shooter. I remember that same visceral thrill of terror -- the idea that is it so random and on one hand makes no sense, and on the other hand makes perfect sense.