Book Review: Living through a social wake-up call

WRITTEN during a time in the US when police shootings of unarmed young black men were making the news on an almost daily basis, The Hate U Give is a stark examination of the effect of one such (fictional) shooting on a young black girl.

Starr Carter is an average 16-year-old whose identity straddles two worlds. She lives in a poorer, mainly black neighbourhood with a high crime rate, but goes to school in a mostly white, suburban prep school.

The book begins with her attending a block party with her childhood friends, and feeling a little self-conscious. However, everything changes when Starr takes a ride home with her friend Khalil, and a routine traffic stop sees him gunned down in front of her by a police officer.

From this point, Starr's world revolves around the tragedy. Her entire neighbourhood is up in arms at the killing, and the reactions of her prep school friends are largely indifferent, leaving her feeling upset, and somewhat betrayed.

In addition, civil rights activists begin to flock to the neighbourhood, determined to turn Khalil's death into a rallying point.

As the sole witness, Starr is asked to give evidence about the incident, but begins to feel overwhelmed at the pressure coming from all sides.

Author Angie Thomas drew from her own life experiences to craft the lead character of her debut novel.

A native of Jackson, Mississippi, where the US civil rights movement was born, Thomas went to a mostly-white college, becoming the first black student to graduate with a creative writing degree.

The story of The Hate U Give had its roots in the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in California, an incident which shook Thomas, then a college junior.

However, it took her several years to develop the story for the book, by which time, there had been several more shootings that made headline news.

When she finally published The Hate U Give earlier this year, the book became a best-seller, not just because of its timely topic, but also because of the rich characters and the complex issues they face. A movie based on the book is currently in production.

Thomas manages to bring Starr to life, writing in the first person and perfectly illustrating her frustrations and fears.

A girl who once felt like she belonged in neither world, Starr becomes increasingly aware that to some people, she will always be defined by the colour of her skin, and has to make a concrete decision about her identity and her place in the world.

Thomas also manages to give a grounded portrayal of the reality behind the headlines, and makes us walk in Starr's shoes, and even question ourselves, and our own actions if we were put in her position.

While of late, media coverage of police shootings and incidents of police brutality in the US has been greatly reduced, Thomas' book serves to chronicle the spirit of the times, and hopefully, will serve as a wake-up call for societies all around the world.