I was lucky enough to request and be approved to read an early copy of this from the publishers on netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.
I don’t read a huge amount of YA (far less than I should!) but I loved The Hate U Give and the premise of this combined with the ‘perfect if you loved THUG’ taglines and general buzz about it really pulled me in.
Ashley is well-off, spoilt (by her own admission) and black. Until recently, the latter hasn’t played much part in her thoughts or her daily life – her best friends are rich, white kids; her home is in a rich, white area and her life has almost always been as theirs is (although, as we see when she starts to reflect on it, perhaps it hasn’t and she’s just chosen to ignore the more casually racist behaviours around her).
We’re told in the synopsis online that
…everything changes one afternoon in April, when four police officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.
but it’s not quite this clear cut.
The LA riots of the 1990s (that began when the officers who beat up Rodney King were acquitted) do form the backdrop to the novel and they do become increasingly intrinsic to Ashley’s choices, feelings and actions, but their effects – on Ashley and more broadly – are not quite so quick and defined as this.
The book begins with Ashley herself admitting that she wasn’t all that bothered by the case to begin with; she and her friends are on the cusp of Summer, graduation and college. Life is a lazy time of skipping school, going out and having fun as they all prepare to go their own ways.
On the surface, it’s a stereotypical scenario – well-off teens skipping school to sunbathe, swim and smoke, mess about with boys/girls and generally enjoy themselves without thinking too much about anyone or anything else.
However, it’s as we spend so much time just ‘hanging out’ with Ashley and her friends in this way that we see – both in their interactions and her memories of growing up there with them – that we see the casual, incidental racism embedded in their lives. Little comments, ‘jokes’ and assumptions made; the knowledge that when they’re stopped by the police for trespassing she’s probably the reason and definitely the one at risk.
However, they’re her friends. They don’t mean anything by it. It’s just how things are. It’s okay.
Or is it?
Gradually Ashley begins to see the racism around her, amplified by the riots, and the contrast between her sheltered, protected life and the lives of the other black kids in her school and in neighbourhoods being looted, burned and vandalised.
It’s likely we’ll see a flux of books about racism given the current climate, but this one especially tackles it somehow subtly and frankly all at once and really addresses how larger events that seemingly have “nothing to do with us” can suddenly feel much closer to home.
In light of the fact that nearly 30 years on, as Black Lives Matters protests continue and we still have police officers kneeling on black necks and abusing their stop and search rights, we don’t seem to have changed at all.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
There are so many layers to this book, so many clever ideas and angles and so much to love about it that it’s hard to review without a sprawling essay full of tangents and spoilers.
It’s less a book I want to review and more a book I really want to talk about and share thoughts on.
So, I will instead keep it short(ish!) and say just this – it is superbly written with complexity, understanding and excellent characters and relationships.
It takes quite something to take a group of wealthy, spoilt brats and give them depth, but that is exactly what we get here. It doesn’t necessarily make them likeable, but it does make them believable and understandable.
Ashley herself is judgmental and self-absorbed (to begin with at least) but it is as she learns from her mistakes and opens herself up to possibilities, people outside her friendship group and begins to consider the wider world that we see her grow.
Her sister Jo and ‘nanny’ Lucia are both fantastic characters too who bring much in the way of context, contrast and social commentary.
Ultimately, this is a book about racism, but it is also a fantastic coming of age story, a realistic and sometimes difficult examination of family and an honest look at friendships – their evolution, their end and the beginnings of new ones. And the themes interplay brilliantly.
I feel like I’ve not done this book justice here, but it is a gripping, thought-provoking, complex and believable read.
It also references some awesome music and I very much need an accompanying The Black Kids soundtrack now!