*This review will contain spoilers!*
‘I sat on the couch, feeling more alone than ever before. Feeling colder than I’d ever imagined possible. Feeling like, of all the horror of what happened, this was the worst of it. This was the worst because, even after everything that had been done, I still missed Nick.’
‘The scene in the Garvin High School cafeteria, known as the Commons, is being described as “grim” by investigators who are working to identify the victims of a shooting spree that erupted Friday morning.’
Starting the novel with an informative and devastating news report, the story of the massacre at Garvin High is established beautifully, throwing you straight into the story and the events that went on.
On May 2nd 2008, Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend opened fire in the Commons. Nick Levil was an outcast, bullied daily by the popular people who ruled the school – people whose names were all on Val and Nick’s Hate List.
Valerie didn’t know that Nick was going to use the list to choose victims, but the police don’t believe her. The security footage is ambiguous, showing Valerie walking across the room with Nick and then running after him, towards the gunshots. She stopped the shooting by jumping in front of his last intended victim, receiving a shot to the leg and passing out.
When Valerie comes round in hospital, she learns that Nick killed himself at the scene. She’s distraught: her boyfriend of three years is dead, her school has been the setting for a bloodbath, and she’s being held in the psychiatric ward at the hospital because they think she’s a suicide risk.
She doesn’t want to go back to school, knowing her classmates are going to be even harsher towards her because of her association with Nick. But she’s not guilty, she didn’t know what Nick was going to do and she didn’t shoot anyone herself, so she doesn’t want to prove everyone right by leaving school in her last year.
With only a handful of weeks until graduation, Jessica Campbell – most popular girl in school, and the person whose life Val saved – tries to befriend her, inviting her to join Student Council to help create a memorial for the people who died. Jessica’s name was on the Hate List more than once, but is it possible that Nick’s heinous actions could have changed the surviving members of Garvin High for the better, or can no good come from evil?
I really enjoyed the way Jennifer Brown decided to tell this story.
The chapters in the first part alternate between the present day and the morning of the shooting, the second is solely dedicated to the shooting and the events directly following it, the third focuses on Valerie learning to come to terms with her part in everything, and the fourth and final part shows the survivors beginning to find closure. Playing with the order of the story held my interest, as I couldn’t anticipate what – or when – was going to happen next.
It perpetuates stereotypes: Nick wears a big black coat on the day of the shooting, Valerie dyes her hair black and wears lots of dark make-up, and the person who gives Nick the gun is called Jeremy (just like the Pearl Jam song of the same name, telling the story of a school shooting). But because those characters are the ones you’d almost expect to be involved, it’s all the more shocking that no one sees it coming.
The ending leaves things on a bit of a cliffhanger – Val decides that she isn’t going to go to college just yet, but leaves town after graduation with no real plan – meaning things don’t get wrapped up as well as I’d hoped they would. There’s the unresolved question of where Jeremy went, for one thing: it’s insinuated that he’s the mastermind behind everything, but the police don’t follow that line of inquiry too thoroughly.
But Val’s struggle to find a place where she was comfortable and a version of herself that she could accept was very easy to relate to. We’re all guilty of being malleable and changing ourselves depending on who we’re with, and sometimes you don’t even notice that you’re losing yourself. Val fighting to reclaim herself, striving to find a happy medium between the pink and preppy pre-Nick Val and the depressed and weary post-shooting Val, shows exactly how hard it is to grow up after an event that will likely define your life.
The meetings with Dr. Heiler, Val’s psychiatrist, showed that it’s always worth getting help even if you think you don’t need it. He’s her conscience personified, allowing her to talk through her deepest fears and worries without judgment. Then there’s Bea, the purple-loving art teacher, who allows Val to explore her art and creativity, finding a more productive way to work through her emotions of anger and sadness.
I loved the moral discussion about whether people can ever really change who they are. Valerie isn’t sure who she is anymore, because so much of her personality was wrapped up in Nick, but when she accepts the fact that she didn’t really know who he was she feels like she’s lost a part of herself. Jessica was the queen bee and a horrific bully, but after the shooting she’s much more accepting of difference and grateful to be alive. Nick changes people for the better, but that doesn’t make how he did it right.
If you loved the concept of the Burn Book in ‘Mean Girls’, ‘Hate List’ is going to appeal to you: it’s used in a much more tragic way, but the idea of a book where you can vent all of your grievances is an appealing one.
I’d also recommend ‘Hate List’ for anyone who loved ‘This Is Where It Ends’ by Marieke Nijkamp as much as I did. The only thing I didn’t like about that novel was the fact that it ended, so reading this story set after the shooting gives me the continuation that I’d been craving for, and an insight into how these communities go about their normal lives after such an earth-shattering event.
I’ve just finished the companion novella, ‘Say Something’, and if that had been a brief short story at the end it would have bumped ‘Hate List’ up to five stars – it answers all of the questions that I was still asking when the book finished. Based off of the merit of this novel alone, it deserves a four star rating.