Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give follows Starr Carter as her life is turned inside out when she witnesses her best friend’s murder at the hands of the police. It is not an emotionally easy read, but at points that is because of the unevenness of the treatment of the central moments as much as it is because of the heartfelt pain of police extrajudicial killings.
The Hate U Give, the debut novel by Angie Thomas, has three strong scenes. The first puts you inside the car during a police stop for DWB (claimed as the old standby of “a broken tail light”) gone wrong. The anxiety and tension in this scene immediately called up every emotion I’ve felt during a traffic stop. The shift from a night like any other to the worst and last night of a Black boy’s life punches in with such abrupt fury, it leaves you reeling. We, the readers, are Starr Carter kneeling on the asphalt, immobilized by fear, watching her friend bleed to death, and facing down a nervous white cop with his finger on the trigger. The unforgettable video of Diamond Reynolds held at gunpoint while her boyfriend, Phillando Castile, slowly bleeds out in the front seat is surely burned in our collective memories. This early scene captures that hopeless, helpless fear in devastating clarity.
We, the readers, are Starr Carter kneeling on the asphalt, immobilized by fear…
The second strong scene is a police interrogation disguised as the making of a report about the incident. The claustrophobia and panic of having the people you go to for help turn on you suddenly are achingly real. We feel what Starr feels, see the officers change from ally to foe in a heartbeat. In the third key scene, Starr watches the television special featuring the father of the officer who murdered her friend. Starr’s struggle in this moment is heartbreaking and familiar. These three scenes are well written and sharply emotional.
And therein lies THUG’s biggest failing. We spend too little time seeing Starr grapple with moments like this. We don’t get to see her exist in many of these tense moments. We breeze past Starr’s meeting with the District Attorney. The book tells us that this was stressful enough to make Starr ill, but we don’t get to see what causes such a strong reaction. We get the first few moments of her testimony in front of the grand jury before we’re hurled forward a few weeks. Two perfect opportunities to see the breakdown of the American justice system in a voice the media doesn’t often amplify were missed. We do spend several pages talking about the intricacies of her family’s basketball loyalties and watch them watch a game. We witness an awkward confrontation at a birthday/graduation barbecue that feels Tyler Perry-esqe in its melodrama and lack of necessity to the plot. Another editorial pass could have trimmed some of the lulls in the book and given more weight to the extrajudicial execution said to be at the center of this novel.
We spend too little time seeing Starr grapple with moments like this.
Starr as a character suffers from “special snowflake syndrome”. She introduces herself to us at a neighborhood party but she is only described in contrast to the other kids there, most starkly with her “friend” and half-brother’s half-sister Kenya. Starr isn’t one of those girls like Kenya, socializing and dressed like a teenage girl going to a party would dress. Starr hangs back in the corner in her brother’s hoodie and her Jordans. She dodges all criticism until the plot calls for it. Her parents encourage her silence on what happened the night of the shooting until they don’t. She manages to avoid being labeled racist like her white bff because she didn’t laugh at the one racist joke made towards their Chinese friend until everyone else laughed first. It doesn’t help that often times the adults align with her more judgmental and short-sighted beliefs either through their words or their actions. It also doesn’t help that the book seems to support these behaviors. Mr. Lewis, who owns the barbershop across the street from Starr’s family store, seemingly deserves to have his speech mocked until Starr takes a liking to him. Khalil’s classmates who show up at his funeral wearing t-shirts with his picture on them — a common expression of mourning in Black communities — are pointed to as being inappropriate.
“My family and I leave thirty minutes before the funeral starts, but the parking lot at Christ Temple Church is already full. Some kids from Khalil’s school stand around in ‘RIP Khalil’ shirts with his face on them. A guy tried to sell some to us yesterday, but Momma said we weren’t wearing them today — T-shirts are for the streets, not for church.”
But the part of the book I struggled with most was the ending.
***Stop reading this review here if you don’t want spoilers because I’m full-on snitching.***
THUG gives us a secondary antagonist in King, the head of one of the local gangs, and proceeds to “What about Black-on-Black crime” its way straight to its conclusion. We lose sight of the police shooting as the book’s final pages descend into a horror movie-style series of unfortunate events, ending with the whole neighborhood openly snitching on King and police pointing their guns at a Black man. Again. I’m gonna leave it at that and share a few more head-scratcher moments from this book.
Overall, the moments when The Hate U Give is on its game make me wish it had been better edited and the moments when it’s off make me want to frisbee it out a window. I am very interested to see what Thomas writes next. Her prose is strong when the story is not, so there’s absolutely potential there. I’d just like to see more of that potential come to light, especially in a book about such an important topic.
My final verdict: 2.5 Steph Curry Under Armour 3s out of 5.
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