On her way home from a party, teenager Starr witnesses the unprovoked shooting of her unarmed, childhood friend. The incident incites riots and chaos in her home of Garden Heights as the truth comes out, and the policeman responsible experiences no consequences for his actions. In a ‘he said, she said’ world, will justice ever be rightfully served?
As part of my integration into Cheltenham, I have decided to join a book club. I adore reading so much, and I felt that reading purposefully could be really good for me in not only combating the anxiety that first time meet ups always cause me, but also addressing the deep loneliness I experience when Jack is at work. My first meeting with them isn’t until May, but I decided to buy the book nice and early – this was their choice.
It has been a long time since I started a book in the morning and finished it at 11.15pm that evening – mostly because I don’t tend to stay up past 9pm! As a result, it’s taken me two days of reflection to feel able to review this book, and let me say before I begin that nothing I say will be able to do it justice. This was a breathtaking novel, that had me on the edge of my seat on every single page, addressing horrific and real issues with sensitivity and honesty. I’m going to focus my review around three central themes of the novel: ‘Identity’, ‘Justice’ and ‘Race’, however, this is a book of many levels and whilst I will do my best to discuss these, you will definitely get more from reading the novel itself – so do that before you read this!
Theme 1 – Identity
Thomas takes the age old tale of a teenager at school, unsure of where they belong, and gives it greater meaning. Unlike the common High School Musical (to sing or play football) or Twilight (vampire or werewolf!) dilemmas, Starr’s struggle is multi faceted and truly identifiable. Starr attends a school outside of Garden Heights, where her friends are not black, like she is, and her home is referred to as the ‘ghetto’. She moderates her speech, refuses to sound ‘street’ and ensures that her lives don’t mix. Her two best friends, Hailey and Maya, and her white boyfriend Chris, aren’t allowed an insight into her world at Garden Heights. If they see her, it’s at her uncle’s house. They have only once met those Starr grew up with, and that didn’t go well. Starr cannot truly identify with her friends from school because they live such different lives. What is sad is that Starr also struggles to identify with those from her neck of the woods, such as Kenya, because they see her as different to them because she attends a different school. So Starr cannot truly be herself amongst those from her town either, because they don’t understand why she hasn’t stayed around with them.
Starr’s struggle for identity is paralleled by her parents’ journey from die hard loyalty to Garden Heights to accepting that it is actually okay to progress from one place to another in order to protect yourselves and your family. While Starr learns to integrate her two worlds, her parents seek safety and security that cannot be found in their home.
The wider context of the theme of identity is Starr’s choice to stand up for what happened to her friend Khalil. Her dilemma is complex – if she is honest and speaks out, she will be under threat not only from the police who she is ousting, but also the drug dealer who Khalil worked for, who is worried that she will reveal more than is pertinent. Being a black child, accusing a white police officer of a cold blooded shooting, will not only put Starr at risk but her entire family. Nowhere was this more painfully displayed than the scene where Starr’s father is questioned, because he is black and looks like he could be causing trouble, and then, when his name is discovered, he is forced onto the ground and thoroughly searched. Now, I am a white British female, and I have no experience of American policing, and this scene almost had me in tears. You witness the loss of innocence for Starr’s youngest brother, for whom the simplicity of being human has instantly become more complex. You witness the loss of dignity for Starr’s father, and for Starr herself, as they are unable to fight for their rights. And you witness the loss of humanity in the police force, who allow their prejudices to dictate their actions. Ignoring the pleas of the children and neighbours, they pursue what they have already decided must be a trouble maker, despite all evidence to the contrary. The general dilemma of identity is this – how can you possibly identify as an honest and productive member of society when you are treated as a sub-citizen? And how can you identify that way when you judge others according to the colour of their skin?
Thomas portrays Starr’s struggle to find her identity and not just become a ‘statistic’ or, as she phrases it ‘a hashtag’. The conclusion of the novel shows Starr beginning to integrate her worlds, but it seems the world is still not yet ready for a person such as her, with justice failing to be served.
Theme 2 – Justice
Which leads me nicely onto my second theme – Justice. I believe that, for whatever reason, we are raising a generation that is passionate about justice, and identifying right from wrong. The #neveragain movement, and the #metoo movement are two current and relevant examples of justice for victims – past, present and future – being sought. It is surprising, therefore, that Thomas withholds justice for Khalil – or maybe not surprising considering the ongoing climate of hate and racism that seems to be found in America.
The entire community of Garden Heights is enraged at Khalil’s murder, and even more so when they discover that he was unarmed. It was uncomfortable to read the policeman’s father’s description of the event given on the news, as the reader witnesses the event from Starr’s perspective and knows the discrepancies. I’m going to avoid getting into the discussion of an unreliable narrator here, because I want to spend the time focussing on the pursuit of justice, but don’t worry – I am aware!
Despite being taken through the proper channels, and having an eye witness, the policeman who kills Khalil is never brought to account for his action. He is protected by the police force, and the media who share his story without contrasting it with the alternative facts. It is infuriating that the lack of justice leads to riots which damage the neighbourhood itself, emphasising the futile nature of opposing those in power – even when something wrong is done, the only real damage ends up being done to those who are wronged. This is a disheartening and powerful message for a world that is seeking justice at every turn.
Theme 3 – Racism
Thomas’ story addresses the key issue of ingrained racism through the lack of justice distributed and Starr’s search for identity.
I found the character of Hailey fascinating. At first, she seems a normal teenager, with a variety of friends and therefore, surely an open mind. It is only as the novel progresses that you learn why she unfollowed Starr on Tumblr (because she was sharing to many #blacklivesmatter posts) and that she has made racist comments towards Maya. Hailey is not aware of her own racism – she sees them as harmless jokes – and those around her have been conditioned to accept it because she represents the majority. It is pleasing that Maya and Starr come out from Hailey’s shadow, and although she does apologise for her actions (via text, I must add), her character does not have enough of a character arc to show true change and progress in her opinions. Perhaps it would have been interesting to write a sub-story showing what it is that made Hailey this way, because it is her attitude that is at the centre of all the problems faced in the novel. Oblivious racism. Profiling based on race. Deliberate racism.
There were some things for me that were a bit odd, but perhaps they have more meaning to an American readership. I found references to ‘Black Jesus’ strange and, from my point of view, unnecessary – Jesus is the son of God no matter how he is portrayed, and race doesn’t really come into it (but maybe I’m being naive – I’m sure I only think that because Jesus is often portrayed to look like m). There were a few references to various high profile equality fighters such as King and Malcolm X, of whom I have limited knowledge, especially regarding the latter. But overall, I feel that Thomas portrayed a society so steeped in its racism that it can’t see it anymore, even among those who are the victims of the attitude.
For example, whenever Starr sees the police she reminds herself of three things – hands visible, don’t make any sudden moves and speak only when you’re spoken to. Starr tells the reader that she was taught this when she was 12, and that is was as normal a conversation for her family as the birds and the bees. This tore me apart because no one ever had that conversation with me (what to do if the police stopped you, not the birds and the bees!) because they never needed to. Why do the police see black people as more of a threat? Why should an entire race live their lives in fear of being stopped by the police, just because of their skin colour? This institutional racism is, I believe, why Thomas must have written this novel, and why things need to change.
Thomas portrays these three key themes and many more, with sensitivity and relevance. This is a book for a generation of readers who need to know where they come from – and need to know that where they’re going needs to be different. Advertised as a ‘teen read’, this novel is more than that, and perhaps if more people read it, more people would be able to reflect on their lives and see that if they changed their attitudes, then maybe a greater change would be achieved.