Review: Hate List, by Jennifer Brown

>>Published: September 2009

>>Finally got around to it: December 2010

I was in Grade 12 when Columbine became a loaded word. I can remember the exact day, even where I was and what class I was in when the news came over the television bolted to the corner of my Literature 12 classroom. There had been incidents throughout the years of kids bringing violence and weaponry to the classroom, but few as world-changing as the massacre of 12 students and one teacher on April 20, 1999 by the hands of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two unsteady individuals who had decided to punish as many as possible for the hurt, the bullying and the persecution they felt they had been the victims of for all too long.

I remember thinking at the time, in spite of the horror, that I could see how they got from point A to point B. I couldn’t relate, I didn’t sympathize, I sure as hell didn’t understand what it would take for a person to go to such extreme lengths, but objectively speaking, I felt that it was possible to draw a map from Insult One all the way to the final shots as they took themselves out of the picture. Toss in some neglectful parenting and a little psychosis and the recipe was there.

To say I wasn’t popular would be like saying snow is cold. I was, for four years, a soft, short, well-tenderized stub of a student content to see any day that I flew under the radar as a pretty damn good day. Then there were the days when you had had enough—when you daydreamed about lashing out at your French teacher for giving you an especially undeserved hard time, or finally getting the upper hand on someone before they could take advantage of you. I’d say the number of students who find themselves with these thoughts is probably far greater than those who would grow up to say “Man, high school, now those were the best years of my life.” But to dream about showing up a tormenter, and to take a gun to them and everyone in the vicinity—guilty or innocent—are two dramatically different things. So different that to understand the brain of someone capable of mass murdering a student populace would, I imagine, be next to impossible.

This is what Jennifer Brown attempts to do in Hate List.

Set in the aftermath of a May 2nd school shooting that leaves a half dozen dead and an entire school psychologically wounded, Hate List follows Val, the girlfriend of Nick Levil, the gunman who, using a notebook they had written together of those they wished to punish, snapped and took it upon himself to exact vengeance for all the shit he had been forced to put up with at the hands of everyone who felt it was their place to call him a freak. But Hate List isn’t about Nick. It’s about Val, how she deals with what has happened, and the changing relationship she has with her family, friends, and the victims of the list she had concocted with Nick—a list she had never intended to see the light of day. For Val, it was a harmless way to vent, to take aim and fire at those that took so much glee in making her life a day-to-day living hell. For Nick, for someone just unsteady enough to see reality in the lines of fiction, it was a roadmap to justice.

Brown has written an intelligent, thoughtful look at not only what it takes to push someone to such horrific actions, but also the little tragedies that follow in its wake like aftershocks, forever shifting the uneasy ground beneath the feet of those left behind. For Val, the world changed when Nick began his attack, and a part of her died when he turned the gun on himself. But her journey is one of understanding—understanding that the man she loved and the monster that had been revealed were both one and the same, but also different. Understanding the implications of hate and what it means to hate. Understanding that some people are incapable of forgiveness, while others prove more capable than ever imagined—and that those elements are not confined to the intimacy of the connection (case in point: Val’s father, who couldn’t win Father of the Year if he discovered the cures for cancer, AIDS, and the common cold and made it all taste like Belgium hot chocolate).

There were parts of Hate List that were genuinely hard to stomach, such as people you so desperately wanted to grow receding into the shells of their own creation, family and friends so horrible and spiteful that you wish for comeuppance that will never come. But that frustration, those missed opportunities for reconciliation are what give this book its grounding in reality. Because death changes everyone and everything. Because some things can never be fixed. And because sometimes the only way for life to go on is to a new place, somewhere that has no map, no destination, and no lists of any kind.

Because every victim deserves a second chance.

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