Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Published: 5th Oct 2010
Recommended Reading Age: 14+
Rating: 7/10‘Five months ago, Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.
Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.’
Hate List both succeeds, and fails, at being the novel I hoped it would be. This isn’t really about a school shooting, or even really about the shooter. Hate List is about the girl in the background – the shooter’s girlfriend, who may, inadvertently, have had more to do with the death of her classmates than she first realises.
I really enjoyed the way in which Brown chooses to tell the reader what happened the day of the shooting. The majority of the book is told in the present tense, from Val’s point of view, as she faces returning to school and seeing everyone whose lives were irreparably altered by her boyfriend’s actions. A lot of the story is Val’s internal monologue which admittedly, does get a little tiring at times, if only because Val’s character is not the easiest to empathise with.
What I loved, and thought worked particularly well, were Val’s flashbacks to the day of the shooting, and the newspaper reports, that were placed intermittently throughout the book. We only discover in fragmented pieces what, exactly, happened that day and Brown allows us to create the full picture for ourselves. The writing in these extracts was understated, conveying a growing sense of dread, as you re-live that last morning minute by minute, and a sense of horror when you learn some of the details of what took place. It is very effective story-telling and it’s a shame the rest of the novel felt a little long-winded in comparison.
The main issue I had with Hate List was that I didn’t like Val very much. I felt sorry for her, but more often than not I felt tired by her. No – she wasn’t to blame for Nick’s actions and yes, she tries to stop him. But, I felt she needed to take responsibility for what she did do. Because, the reality is, that Nick guns down the people she targets. The emails and words exchanged between the two of them about these people are hateful and nasty. I wanted to see her acknowledge that and try to make amends. Mostly, she just hides away. Val lost a lot that day, but she isn’t the only one grieving. Her lack of interest, or care, as to how everyone else is coping made it very difficult to like Val, as too often she comes across as self-absorbed, uncaring and childish.
The strongest aspect of Hate List, is, strangely, Nick, who barely features at all. Brown succeeds in creating a character I actually liked, one who I wanted to know better. She doesn’t paint a monster or even a damaged kid, but a sweet, intelligent, generous boy. If anything, I just felt incredibly saddened by his story, and mourned him just as much as any of the victims. Being able to provoke such a reaction is a testament to Brown, as, in reality, the shooter is rarely considered as a person, someone to mourn. In the horror of what they have done, we forget they are someone’s child too.
Nick is also, interestingly, the weakest aspect of Hate List, because we never learn enough about him. The reasons for his actions, what drives him to one day take a gun to school and kill 6 people, is never fully explained. This is Val’s story, but it felt like there was a vital part missing. I wanted more of Val and Nick’s relationship. I wanted to actually experience those ‘warnings’ that Val feels she should have picked up on, rather than just be told that looking back, she should have seen the changes in him. Val has a difficult time reconciling the Nick she knew and loved, the boy who made her laugh, with the same boy who walked into a cafeteria one day, dragged people out from underneath desks and shot them at point-blank range.
And so do we. Because the only Nick we get a glimpse of, is the Nick of Val’s happier memories. Brown creates an exciting, complex character in Nick but the moments we get with him are few and far between and I was desperate for more insight into his character. I wanted to know exactly what happened in that last moment together, when Val steps in front of Nick to try to stop him. Does Nick kill himself because he feels betrayed by her? Is he remorseful in that moment? Confused? Did he always plan to die that day? Or does he turn the gun on himself because of what he has done to Val? Realistically, I suppose these are the types of questions the real survivors and victim’s families never find the answers too. In that sense, Hate List portrays a very realistic aftermath of a shooting, but it does make for a rather unsatisfactory reading experience.
This is quite a long book, but it somehow feels as though little is really resolved, while a long time feels spent on Val’s internal panics and complaints. The problems within her family are never properly explored. Val make friends with some of the same people she loathed before, but they never talk about their past relationship, nor does Val apologise or explain why she put them on a hate list. And they never ask. Jeremy’s story line is extremely important – he may, or may not have been, the catalyst that causes Nick to tip over the edge, but he is dropped quite suddenly not half-way through and never mentioned again. This particularly bothered me because Nick wasn’t an outcast, or from a broken home (as far as I could tell). He was badly bullied but he had a support system. So how and why does he sink so suddenly? This is an interesting story to tell and one we never get to read.
But, saying that, it’s important to note this is a good book, despite its potential to be more. There are several, genuinely poignant and breathtakingly sad moments (Nick’s defeated moment in the car will stay with me for a long time) and the bullying and harassment scenes, not to mention the shooting, were incredibly well done and felt very realistic.
Hate List tackles very difficult subjects: bullying, mass shootings, death, grief, guilt, and for the most part, tackles them well. There were parts I disliked and moments that truly gripped me. It’s a mixture of a book – I can’t say I loved it but it is an engaging read and felt all too real at times. There were too many stereotypical characters, such as the random art teacher and the students, but then there was Nick, who had the potential to be a fascinating, complex character, one who could have really broken my heart, had he been allowed to shine. There are a lot of good things about this book, and some very disappointing things as well. Well worth picking up.