In Jennifer Brown’s novel, Hatelist, Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend of three years, Nick, opens fire one morning in their high school’s crowded commons. At first his targets are the names listed in Valerie’s notebook, the “Hatelist” of the title: classmates who have made their lives miserable in big ways and small. Within a few seconds, the dead and wounded include innocent by-standers and guilty alike — and those who would stop the shooting at the cost of their lives, including Valerie herself. But the victims of the shootings aren’t the only causalities of this act of wanton, inexplicable violence. We soon witness the crumbling lives and lingering pain of those who survived, as well.
Brown’s portrayal of a school and a community trying its best to pick up the pieces after a tragedy that comes painfully close to real-life headlines delves deeply into the psychology and trauma of the victims of bullying. Her novel also raises serious questions about just who is really a victim, as characters slowly reveal the back-story to the reader. We meet the sports hero who is insecure and jealous of the attention his girlfriend pays another boy; the cheerleader who rises above the mean-girl stereotype to befriend and include the outcast; the mother whose depth of agony forces her to impose harsh restrictions on her child, not because of mistrust and anger, but from powerlessness and fear.
Although the story offers readers valuable insights into “the other side of the story,” and Brown is to be commended for not offering us a pat “happy-ending” with everyone healed and forgiven, the breakthrough for Val feels too contrived. She is an artist, and the quirky-art teacher-cum-fairy-god-mother-like Bea offers her a place to express her pain, and discover her truth. In actuality it is Val’s psychiatrist Dr. Heiler, the most endearing and relatable character in the entire book, who helps her say goodbye to her past and rejoin the living. The story works when it shows the kind of effort it takes to overcome the very real consequences of gun violence; as a portrait of a girl struggling with the daily challenges of life as an “untouchable” are less well observed. I just didn’t believe that Val had the amount of strength it would take to walk back into the school where her boyfriend shot innocent people. While scenes of bullying demonstrate a keen ear for the tones and nuance of adolescents, the climatic scene when Valerie herself is threatened with a gun feels less genuine. Only the reproach by the gun-toting bully’s friend who says, “Come on, Troy. I’m losing my buzz. That thing isn’t even loaded,” rang true to me.
Young people can be cruel, we know this. Where Brown’s novel soars, though is in demonstrating the power of forgiveness to heal.
Sexual Content — O
Violence — V
Questionable behavior – ?