December 29, 2015


This is less of a book review than a book reaction, and is a little more self-indulgent than the way I usually book talk here in the Wonderland tree house. However, after reading just this morning that there's a thirteen day period where PTSD is catching and stressed people are more apt to copycat violent actions, and after a week in which two nasty and violent incidents occurred in our country, I am thinking seriously about the topic touched on in this book, thus this response is my attempt at being as thoughtful as possible.

We can state for the record, that this novel is carefully written, the multiple characters are voiced realistically in terms of dialogue and interaction, and there is obviously incidental diversity of character (though one of them presents as a refugee, and I found myself wanting to know more about how he'd ended up in Opportunity, how he'd ended up friends with a trouble-maker, how long ago he'd emigrated, etc.). This is more of a plot-driven novel than a character-driven read, as the reader doesn't have much time to connect with individual characters; the teens as individuals seem not to be the point of the novel. Some readers may find the multiple voices slightly confusing, but again; the characters aren't as much the point. The narrative is bolstered and carried by a violent individual, the storyline is shouldered forward by his violent actions, and the reader is simply dragged along for the ride, like a unfortunate rider hanging from the stirrup of a runaway horse.

Summary: Two girls, whose post-graduation plans are topics bringing both longing and pain, attend an assembly with their classmates. Two boys, whose desire for information exceeds their good sense, skip the assembly and rifle through the files in the principal's office. JROTC runners, excused from the assembly, are finishing up an exercise period. When the assembly is over, the doors are locked, shots are fired, and there's an incident ongoing in the bizarrely named Opportunity, Alabama. This novel chronicles the fifty-four minutes of panic, terror and violence which change both the town and the school, forever.

Discussion: A striking cover and a succinct précis gives readers an immediate sense of what is going to go on -- a fast-paced, harrowing narrative. If the novel's purpose is to make the reader feel that they are "there;" if it is to tell a story "ripped from the headlines," it does fulfill its purpose in spades. But, my question is, "why?"

Not, "Why did this author write this book;" because that is a baseless question. A writer's rights extend to the narrative creation of any tale that he or she wishes or likes, and the purpose of a book can be nothing deeper than entertainment. The teens who will enjoy this book may simply be after a frisson of drama or, more likely, are people who, perhaps without being able to articulate it, want to explore their emotional response to the idea of violence in a school situation in a way which is safe, because the victims and the aggressor are fictional. Fictionalizing the horrendous allows a reader to imagine themselves on both sides of the fence, to posit a "what would I do?" conversation into one's ethical universe. This is A Good Thing. However, the "why" I want to touch on is slightly bigger than the individual writer, and the reader both... and deals with the nonfictional aspects of the incident which the novel mirrors, the appalling and horrific phenomena that is mass murders carried out in American schools. I think my question is, "why should I look at this repellent thing any more closely?"

Social media has made it virtually impossible to miss tragic events. In this novel, there's a very realistic -- and intrusive -- reporter asking all the wrong questions at the wrong time to people not even on campus, trying desperately to get a "scoop" as breaking news of the school shooting is reported. All too realistically callous is his treatment of the terrified students and family members, waiting for real news from someone, anyone. We have post-traumatic solidarity down to a science - change your Facebook avatar, use a hashtag, be ready to offer information on how the trauma affects you, troubles you, angers you, grieves you; we are primed to react personally and sometimes politically. But this novel touches down on not just individual reactions -- and individual terror from students being in a room wherein classmates are dying. It includes a troubling look at an unreported assault - then takes an unfortunate turn of trying to examine the motives of the shooter from the perspective of his resentments and prejudices... The sadistically grinning Tyler, casually gunning down teachers and students alike is like an evil cartoon - his disordered behavior easily explained by specific things in the novel which basically boil down to rabid homophobia and prejudice. I feel this doesn't well serve the readers for whom this book is intended, for not only can we not comprehend anyone's true motives unless they tell them to us, providing readers an "explanation" for them writes them off as nearly normal -- "well you know what those racist homophobes are like. They'll pick up a gun and kill us all, right?" -- Actually... no. Every single human being on earth, racists and homophobes included, have more nuance and depth than we may ever know. As Mark Twain said, we only ever see one side of the moon. The novel simply didn't allow us time to know the characters well enough for their actions and reactions to be shown and not simply told to us with the expectation that we'd believe.

Conclusion: I found the book fast-paced and harrowing, all things the author likely intended, but also found myself looking for places where the reader bearing witness to this violent fifty-four minutes -- being at this school, seeing the shooter, seeing his victims - made a difference, revealed something, explained something, caused me to think. I was looking for the "why should I look at this repellent thing more closely" and didn't quite find a complete answer. Had the novel more narrative scope and taken more time and more pages to allow the reader to know the characters and understand their psychology, motivations and character as well as their relationships, this novel might have been more successful. Readers seeking a realistic understanding of violence, and its outbreaks in school settings might be better off reading nonfiction; those seeking a dramatic story with a chilling and riveting storyline should look no further.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Source Books. After January 5, 2016, you can find THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS by Marieke Nijkamp at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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