Debut author Marieke Nijkamp tells a story of 54 terrifying minutes following a high school assembly. As the principal of Opportunity High finishes her speech welcoming students to a new school year, one student locks the door to the gym and seeks revenge for wrongs, real and imagined. Less than an hour later, dozens lie dead.
I’ve sat on this review for more than a week. How do you talk about a mass shooting? A massacre? My initial reaction was a total gut punch, but as I’ve processed the story more, my feelings have changed somewhat.
It is gripping and traumatic, on the surface. It is so foreign and horrific to even think about a school shooting that it paralyzes you, at first. But it is the topic itself that does that, not the novel.
The story is told from four points of view, which I found confusing. Jumping back and forth between characters, I never really got a sense of who was who. It took about half the book to know which character was telling the story at any one time, and their relationships with each other. The addition of the texts and blog posts did not clear up the confusion; they detracted from the story.
The one point of view that was never examined was the shooter’s. And I think that did the story a disservice, because the reader can never get a clear picture of motivation from the four narrators. They don’t know. They can only guess. And they don’t really spend a lot of time doing that (understandably, they are being hunted), they just classify him as loathsome, a loser.
So with this vague picture of the shooter, the reader is left with the sense that he is just a bad person. Maybe he is that. But it seems too convenient. Seeing him only through the eyes of others who don’t know his motivation themselves, who can only guess, coloured by their own prejudices, dismisses perhaps the most important facet of the story. Why.
While I normally applaud diversity in a YA fiction, the cast of characters felt very formulaic. Najkamp wanted to hit every possible box, probably with good intentions, but it came across that way. Lesbian couple? Check. African American sisters? Check. Latino students? Check. Disabled student? Check. Muslim immigrant? Check. Older sibling (white) serving overseas? Check.
The story is not actually told over the 54 minute period, which is, again, confusing. It includes a lot of flashbacks, which interrupts the urgency that could have been built by a minute by minute telling.
Timing, response, everything seems off. I did a quick search online, and found that police response times to school shootings are incredibly fast in the USA (sadly, due to practice), not the 20+ minutes it takes in Opportunity, Alabama. The students did not behave logically; wouldn’t you run if you had the chance? Everyone at the assembly had a phone, and it is never clear if anyone calls 911, or just sends a text/tweet out.
This book definitely has moments that stun and appall, as well as small moments of hope, but it needs more. More depth to the characters, more exploration of motive, more horror, more complexity, more resolution.
Najkamp’s inexperience as an author prevents it from being a powerful read. With school shootings sadly being a subject all too familiar in this day and age, the story needs to grab the reader and not let go until everything is examined.