I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I was sceptical about this book. I do like YA, but I’m a little cautious when it comes to YA dealing with serious topics. I think because I was disappointed by Brian Conaghan’s The Bombs That Brought Us Together, I got it into my head that I would rather read adult books about big issues and I would just be turning to YA for romance. I was so mistaken. I knew that this book was going to be capital-I Important, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how GOOD it is.
I’m sure you’ve probably heard what this book is about by now because it was absolutely everywhere when it first came out, so I’ll keep it brief. Starr lives in the rough, black part of town, but goes to school in the posh, white part. One night, her oldest friend, Khalil, is driving her home from a party when they’re pulled over by the police. Things escalate and a white police officer shoots the unarmed Khalil. Starr is then faced with the choice of whether to speak out or not.
Thomas gives depth to a huge range of characters in this book. The neighbourhood where Starr lives is layered and complex: life is hard there but there’s a lot of good too. Her dad is a former gang member who now runs a grocery store, her uncle has risen up in the police and left the neighbourhood, her mum is a nurse. We meet kids who have been caught up in the gang culture and kids who are desperately resisting it, as well as adults and elderly people who have spent their whole lives in the neighbourhood. Thoas deftly weaves together this community, showing the way in which Khalil’s death sends fractures throughout it.
We are also, through Starr’s school life, shown the other side of the coin, with the soft racism of her supposed friends and the reaction of this community of wealthy white kids, which is to jump on the bandwagon of the protests in order to get out of lessons. There are those white kids who try to understand, Starr’s boyfriend Chris among them, but an awful lot seem to think that Khalil probably got what was coming to him, and that there’s nothing wrong with their using his death as a way to skive off.
Thomas’s characters are often insightful and intelligent, and she skilfully has them explain race relations, identity and philosophy to one another without it ever seeming clumsy. Whether it’s Khalil explaining Tupac Shakur’s philosophy of THUG LIFE to Starr in the early pages, Starr’s parents arguing over the pros and cons of leaving the neighbourhood, Starr explaining the way she code switches between school and home through the narration, or her dad giving Chris the opportunity to ask questions about race, these are super smart characters, and it’s impossible to close the book without feeling like they’ve taught you something, without this ever weighing down the plot.
This is a brilliant book, and it takes a complex, nuanced look at a black community in America today. Angie Thomas is a wonderfully talented writer and this is one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long time, YA or otherwise.