Initial reaction: I think my reaction to this book can be best summed up in something that I said in the context of the discussion I had with a few of my readerly friends:
"I think this might be a classic case of an author who tries to write a story that's bigger than their ability to tell and trying to incorporate too much without any rhyme or reason to it."
But I will say this very clearly:
This is NOT a fair portrait of a tragedy befalling its cast.
This is NOT a good psychological portrayal of the tough themes and choices the book touches upon in the scheme of its events.
This is ABSOLUTELY NOT a good portrayal of diversity, it's more of a offending reference of "otherness" and bland identity than anything else. And ye Gods, I'm angry at the portrayal here.
This is NOT a story I would recommend on its subject matter to be taken as a mature, resonant narrative on its themes. Try reading Jennifer Brown's "Hate List" instead.
This is probably the point where people are saying "Okay, Rose. You have some explaining to do, because this actually sounds like a good book."
Initially, I thought so too, that's why I requested it as a galley. I was pumped over this book, something similar to my initial excitement to Katie Stout's "Hello, I Love You" (and we know how that experience turned out.)
This book is much harder for me to expound on its problems because there are two issues plaguing the better part of this narrative: the way it portrays the school shooting and the way it portrays its respective characters on an individual level as well as for the measure of including "diversity."
I'm going to start with the school shooting aspect of the narrative because that's the easiest one for me to point out the problems for. "This is Where It Ends" is an ambitious narrative, narrating from the perspectives of several teens who are caught in the crossfire of a student (Tyler) who returns to school to enact revenge on his student body for "not being seen" (this is a very terse summary of it, but truth be told, Tyler has very little motivation and this I'll get into when I talk about the characterizations). It's weird how this narrative chose to tell all of its respective conflicts without much suspense or development. I felt like I was never immersed in the environment of the school or the students' experiences, more like I was talked at for the entire time of how much "potential" or "possibilities" these teens had before this madman of a character barges in with a gun and starts shooting. It's an all or none scenario, and not only unrealistic, but it skirts the complexity of the situation for what actually happens in real life.
This book was emotionally manipulative because it was telling me what to think or feel about the scenario instead of allowing me an eye into the character's minds and experiences of the peril they were in. Same with trying to understand WHY Tyler snapped the way he did.
I don't think the deaths were even that resonant because I never got to know the characters or their relationships beyond very jagged inserts that seemed to weave in and out of the narrative without any consistency for portrayal. That made it very hard for me to hold interest in the narrative, and made the 54 minute ordeal drag out for much more time than it should've. (That's the downside of using a timeline and "head-hopping" between characters with very generous overlap and similar voicing.) Plus, when Tyler's described in the killing of his student body, the portrayal is very mechanical. I get that Tyler's actions are mechanical, that he's numb because of a number of different things (abuse, loss, neglect), but does the PORTRAYAL have to be mechanical? This is where I think Nijkamp messed that up because it didn't have to be. The scenario could've had more weight if it'd been more intimate to the character experiences. The problem was that there was NO intimacy with the characters, and an odd distance that prevailed in the narrative the entire time. It's talking at you, not showing you. Big no, no in this type of narrative.
Tyler's character was just completely bland for motivation to begin with and I had a hard time believing that he was anything but a "bad guy", from the fact that people somehow automatically knew the one shooting up the school was him to [ him sexually assaulting a girl (hide spoiler)]
- you don't get any insight on his character other than the fact that he's immoral, evil, messed up - something that undermines the entire situation for the complexity it really has, whether on the level of mental illness or the relationships that Tyler has in his life and what pushed him to his breaking point.
As for the characterization, ye Gods this was the worst part of the novel by far. That's important because this kind of story hinges so much on characterization and trying to understand the backgrounds, quirks, definitions, emotions and actions of the characters when they're backed up against the wall. On one hand, you could probably hear me praising the skies that the author included the presence of POC characters and characters of different sexual orientations. But the presentation was so bland and skewed that I'm saying it's hurting the diversity leaning more than helping it. So much narrative space was dedicated to overemphasizing their "otherness" that the inclusion felt not only forced, but stereotypical and - dare I say it - prejudiced. Telling me fifty billion times that a character loves another girl and that they fit together does not convince me of the relationship - you have to SHOW those interactions, bring them to life, create context and value for them to make them more vivid. The repetition doesn't do anything for the characters themselves or showing their experiences and feelings. Using a bunch of random Spanish words (Madre de Dios got old very quickly, and how many teens do you think would say that?) and ill attributed stereotypical mannerisms does not convince me that you know how to write a Latino/a character.
And I especially CANNOT with the way this narrative treated Fareed's character. If you have to define his "otherness" with references to what you think is respectful in terms of defining the religion and/or practices of "his people", you've got serious problems portraying diversity. I feel like I don't know even know what ties these characters together besides what the narrative gives in terms of their "otherness". POCs and characters of different groups (whether by religion, creed, sexual identity, sexual orientation, etc) are not set pieces that one can just throw in a story willy nilly and automatically consider it inclusive. It's not a laundry list and it's not something you can just check off whenever you feel like it - it's all about the portrayal of the characters, the way they define themselves, their experiences and how they interact and deal with life and the situations they encounter. And this narrative did a mediocre job of all of that.
I'm just beyond disappointed in this story for not only what it chose to show, but also what it didn't. I was pulled into the story for the promises, but the connection was either lacking or absent, and that does not make for an enriching experience on such a tough narrative.
I would highly recommend Jennifer Brown's "Hate List" instead of this narrative, because it actually took the time to responsibly develop and delve into the difficult issues within its respective events while giving dimensional characters the reader could care about even if the scenario itself was hard to watch and come to terms with. Plus, you could more easily identify the characters and their respective voices without necessarily feeling like you're hopping around.
This...was just sadly lacking for a debut and tried too hard to be too many things at once, without even really making the lasting impression it aimed for.
Overall score: 1/5 stars.
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from Sourcebooks FIRE.