I was sent this book as an advance copy by the publisher via NetGalley for reviewing purposes, but all opinions are my own.
Perfect for fans of The Hate U Give, this unforgettable coming-of-age debut novel is a unflinching exploration of race, class, and violence as well as the importance of being true to yourself.
Los Angeles, 1992
Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of high school and they’re spending more time at the beach than in the classroom. They can already feel the sunny days and endless possibilities of summer.
But 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.
As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. Even as her self-destructive sister gets dangerously involved in the riots. Even as the model black family façade her wealthy and prominent parents have built starts to crumble. Even as her best friends help spread a rumor that could completely derail the future of her classmate and fellow black kid, LaShawn Johnson.
With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?
Reading this book knowing it’s historical fiction feels like a punch in the gut because it’s 2020 and so many things are the same if not worse. I don’t live in the US and we don’t really learn any history past right after WW2 in our schools so I had to google the events of the Rodney King Riots to have an idea about the events going on during this novel.
I think what this book does and how it does it is very clever and I really liked seeing the perspective of what’s basically slice of life while a major and violent event is happening in your town (just maybe not exactly in your district). Different country, very different circumstances, and I wasn’t old enough to really grasp everything that was going on, but I lived through a massive event that shook my city while kind of living my life in a somewhat normal way. But I still remember the constant noise of the helicopters that never left our skies for 2-3 days, and when Ashley, the protagonist of this book, noted the same happened during the Riots, I was instantly taken back to that uneasy feeling.
Ashley is a Black teen with white friends and a quite privileged life. I can’t know what that’s like, but reading through her perspective I think her development was strongly portrayed while avoiding a single big realization moment in which she suddenly understands her privilege and all the ways in which she’s not. You can see she’s aware of it, or some of it, throughout the novel, but that it’s also easier for her to close an eye to it sometimes, and I don’t think anyone can blame her. Her development is just as much in her as in the eyes of the reader, as she opens up more about her life and her mistakes we also see all her depth.
I think the way this story is written was the best way for this kind of novel. When I said slice of life earlier in my review I do mean it, but I don’t mean it’s a superficial story at all: there’s a lot of anecdotes about Ashley herself, her friends, her family, Lucia, that truly make each character and relationship come alive. Slowly at first, and I admit it wasn’t easy to pick up this book again after putting it down for the first 30% of it, but the middle section was more dynamic and I almost couldn’t put it down. The pace slowed down again in the last 15% and I understand why this was necessary but it’s also the reason I can’t give it a full 5 stars.
Being white, living in another continent and at a different time, I can’t say I can understand the full depth of this novel, but I found it incredibly well-written and important nonetheless. I highly recommend checking it out and doing some basic research about the Rodney King Riots if you don’t know about them, because they are in the background throughout the novel and it will be expected for you to at least have googled it.
TWs: police brutality, racism, racist slurs, mention of attempted suicide, mention of a queer person at the last stages of AIDS, recreational drugs, alcohol, cheating