In her debut novel, Jennifer Brown has definitely not shied away from a controversial subject.
Valerie Leftman is a reluctant senior at her high school five months after someone opened fire in the school cafeteria before killing themselves. Her boyfriend to be precise. While Valerie was shot and injured, the fact she was dating Nick Levill and a little notebook called the Hate List has ruined her reputation. The Hate List is a notebook of everyone Valerie and Nick hated at school and home, a list that she started. While Valerie didn’t intend for anyone to die, many around her believe she is just as guilty as Nick, including some of her family.Throughout her senior year, Val is forced to not only face her peers and family, but her guilt as well as grieving for her boyfriend and trying to understand him.
This is the sort of book that could easily undermine a serious subject, however Brown manages not to make it overly didactic or melodramatic. The integration of the newspaper articles about the shooting is a really effective way to break up the chapters and as a result you learn about the shooting more as the novel progresses.
Val is a complex protagonist; on one hand it is easy to hate her for the list, however there is something really understandable about her situation. We all have people we don’t get on with and sometimes we joke they should die, but it doesn’t mean we want them dead or want to kill them and Valerie epitomises this. Her actions during the shooting with two characters in particular (I won’t spoil it) are very effective at showing the complexity and dilemma of this.
It is also commendable that Nick is not just a cookie-cutter villain but has depths and you feel an element of sympathy for him. That said, I found his comments, knowing he wasn’t taking them lightly, as very chilling.
The impact on the school is also exceptionally well written and full of pathos without feeling like an after-school session. People don’t hold hands and sing after the shooting, but the school changes.
The snowball effect on Val’s family is also well explored and while her situation is one the majority of people cannot completely empathise with, the disputes and distances between family members is universal.
All in all, this is a commendable debut and I look forward to seeing what Jennifer Brown writes in the next few years. From the book, there is a summary of her new book Bitter End, which was released in May 2011 in the US but I have not seen in the UK yet.
Author’s website- http://www.jenniferbrownya.com/