by Angie Thomas
Starr is a 16-year-old African-American from Garden Heights. Her story is unfortunate, yet not uncommon. After a fight breaks out at a party, Khalil, a friend of hers, offers to ride her home. They are stopped by a cop as his tail light isn’t turned on. The situation escalates and ends up in the unwarranted murder of the unarmed Khalil. This is the second time that Starr has witnessed a best friend get murdered. Starr tries to move on with her life amidst the psychological trauma, the fear of injustice and the rioting within their neighbourhood.
The review will contain minor spoilers ahead.
Last year, I have frequently seen this book on lists and giveaways of best books from 2017. I remember that the title and cover spoke out to me and sparked an interest. Upon seeing that the book was being made into a movie, I had to take the opportunity and read it before the story would be spoiled, and I am glad to have embarked on this journey.
One of the best aspects of this book was the character development and their authenticity. Each character is unique and has a history that explains their behaviour, motives or emotions, including side characters. The point-of-view that the author writes in is impeccable, as initially, Starr has ideas and constructs about everyone, but through information or experience, she learns to adapt. And as a reader, I got to learn about the other characters through her eyes and was able to feel similar emotions as she did. The characters and setting continued to develop throughout, and not only through their actions, but at times, through her perception, which might have been previously been inaccurate. This adds to the empathy experienced in two ways: empathy towards Starr and empathy towards myself who lived her experiences through her.
Within Garden Heights, Starr is a well-behaved teen is an outcast, as she attends at Williamson, a private school outside her neighbourhood. She has no interest in attending parties or activities with her peers from Garden Heights, including Kenya, who used to be a much closer friend. On the other hand, at Williamson, she is one of the few black kids and is an outcast once again. However, at Williamson, she never swears, acts politely, and thus, aims to represent the black community in a way that is accepted by other communities. The way she and her siblings have learnt to act around people from outside Garden Heights is now ingrained in her mind, and she automatically behaves in this way at school or around her school friends.
The tension that arises from racial discrimination has affected Starr heavily, as she almost has two distinct personalities. Even with her white boyfriend, Chris, she lets some guard down but is unable to completely act like she does at home. Especially since the cop that had killed Khalil was white, Starr felt unsafe and misunderstood around white people. This even more so when her classmates decided to protest Khalil’s death, only to miss classes, while they still misjudge him. The tension can also be felt as she hides Chris from her family, as especially her dad, Maverick, has always expressed that his children should date other black people. Apart from her personality and her traumas, this racial tension is essential to understanding who Starr is, and not many authors could have succeeded in making readers understand such a struggle. Starr is an authentic character, and practically any reader can identify with her emotions, even though our realities may be different; we can empathise.
Within the US, amongst other countries, police brutality has been rampant in recent years. The novel gives us a detailed scene of an unjust murder. We get to go back through it as many times as Starr traumatically remembers it. We know what happened. However, everyone around her has their own opinion, and quickly the media starts misconstruing the event. Of course, relatives of the cop are portraying that he was in danger and claiming self-defence, and those within Garden Heights are infuriated and riot for the sake of justice. As eyewitnesses, we know more than most characters and form an opinion on what should happen. Will justice prevail? What will the cop be sentenced to?
We apply this knowledge to the real world and realise that most times, we do not have enough information to judge. Sometimes we do, but with how differently reconstructed the truth is, we can never be too sure if what we are told is factual. Especially when the victim is severely hurt or killed; their side of the story is now gone. People in power, including police and politicians, often have an upper hand in courts, and as a society, we need to tackle this issue in the justice system. The victims and their communities will continue to be alienated unless the discrepancy in justice is removed. The book also brings to light that many communities are oppressed to a point where kids get involved in gangs and crime to help their families survive. Survive! Something that we should consider a basic human right. Yet, their involvement in crime for such a necessary activity gets them into trouble, where a dominant culture reinforces beliefs and continues to profit over the hurt of minorities.
I rate this book at a 5/5 and I would recommend this book to anyone – especially those who may be alienated from this narrative. This novel’s main strengths can be summarised in three points:
- The characters are human. They are real to the extent that we can live through Starr’s eyes, even if we come from a different background.
- In addition to the characters, the dialogue is authentic. It contains slang and is not filtered for any specific demographic or publishing opportunity.
- It gives us all a chance to reflect upon the reality of our societies and what we could do, as individuals and as a collective, to improve the situation for everyone.