A powerful and brave YA novel about what prejudice looks like in the 21st century. Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice.
Some books, I’m not sure I’m the right person to review. Some books are written from so far outside my experience, I don’t know if it’s my place to speak on them, or whether I should just boost the voices of others. This is one of those books; The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, speaks to a black, female, poor, American experience I just cannot claim to have anything similar to. But it needs to be talked about, because this is one of the most important YA books to come out this year, if not the most important.
The Hate U Give is, as above, a novel about the Black Lives Matter movement, without ever explicitly being about the Black Lives Matter movement in the text, or about any specific police shooting of an unarmed black teenager. Instead, it takes a fictional scenario, and plays it out – from the point of view of the only witness to the shooting, Starr. The whole thing is set up within the first couple of chapters; very rapidly, Thomas drops us into Starr’s world, the two parts she works to keep separate (Garden Heights, the poor, black neighbourhood she lives in) and Williamson (the majority-white private school she attends), the personal and political conflicts raging around her, and the struggles of her life. Those are both ordinary adolescent struggles – boys, friendship groups, school – and larger ones: gang struggles, police racism, complicated family politics.
The Hate U Give ties these all together through the person of Starr; what could be a messy novel with too many threads not really tying together works well in Thomas’ hands as she controls each and every one carefully, bringing them to the fore and pushing them into the background in turn and bringing them together in parallel or running right into each other with a very well controlled hand. At times it doesn’t work quite so well – there are a few rocky patches where transitions between Starr’s self-presentation are hammered home a little too hard, and a few plotlines are just dropped into oblivion without ever going anywhere. There are also moments when it grinds screeching to a halt for Thomas to talk to the reader; while these sections convey important information, they feel clunky and unnatural, as Starr recites information she knows without it really adding anything to the book beyond educating the reader.
The biggest strength of The Hate U Give, though, is also its biggest weakness; the characters. Starr herself, as noted above, is brilliantly written in the centre of all kinds of complicated knots and relationships, and working her way through them is what the book is about; but that requires the other characters be well drawn too. Certainly her family members, especially her Daddy, her Momma, and her Uncle Carlos are all brilliantly drawn, complicated and interesting people, with individual mannerisms, understandings of blackness, and approaches to life, all smart and well-written; but some of the other characters fall flat. The flattest of all is Ms. Ofrah, the community organiser and activist who helps Starr; she is two-dimensional and uninteresting as a character in her own right, serving only to further the plot. Both Chris and Hailey suffer from this too, although that’s not unexpected; Chris, Starr’s boyfriend, is essentially “white ally learning how to be a better ally”, while Hailey is a portrait of white privilege; there’s no reason either needs to be more than that, really. However, that DeVante isn’t very rounded out is disappointing; his role in the book could have been rather more interesting and shown some interesting ideas and parallels, but he’s much more a case study than really allows for that.
It’s also worth noting how strongly this book is connected to generations of African-American culture. The Hate U Give takes its title from a Tupac line, and there’s an implicit struggle in Starr’s parents’ generation over modelling one’s activism on Malcolm X and Huey Newton or Martin Luther King Jr; “Black Jesus” is a constant in life, in houses and art; the soundtrack of the novel is generations of African-American music, from Tupac and NWA to Kendrick Lamar and Ice Cube, with the occasional dips into white superstars of the moment like Taylor Swift. This really does set the atmosphere and tone of the book powerfully.
The Hate U Give can be a tad preachy, with Thomas at times talking at the reader rather than telling the story, and it can at times fall a little flat, but overall, this is a powerful, brutal condemnation of the racist status quo in America, powerfully, brilliantly told from the point of view of one girl.
DECLARATION: This review based on an ARC received from Walker Books, the UK publisher, on request.
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