Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.
What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?.
I am late in the game, with this book: five years late, give or take. I have watched this novel be nominated for and gain a wealth of awards, and yet I have always shied away from it. And that is not a criticism of Thomas at all, but certain topics have this effect on me – slavery and the holocaust do the same thing. Novels focusing on these big central topics make me uncomfortable – which is, I fully understand, the point – but not simply because they challenge my position but, maybe, because the novel is at its soul a medium intended to entertain, and these are big, important and in the case of the Black Lives Matter movement pressing concerns that the medium rarely manages well. The issues often get in the way of the characters and settings; or the demands of the novel interfere with the message…
This is one novel where the message and the characterisation merged seamlessly and worked together beautifully and powerfully – and that is without question due to Thomas’ narrator, Starr Carter. Sixteen, negotiating school and friendships, romantic entanglements and family commitments, Starr is in many ways an everyman character – but her dual life, living in the black neighbourhood of Garden Heights and schooled amongst the rich, entitled and primarily white students of Williamson Prep school, set her apart.
We witness her code-switching as she describes it,
flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.” Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.
Caught between these two worlds, Starr struggles to be herself and to find her voice, struggles to negotiate between those two parts of her identity.
The death of a friend – Khalil – at the hands of a police officer as he is driving Starr home, a murder which she witnesses from terrifying proximity, is the inciting moment in the novel and, my goodness, it is described brutally. Equally brutally depicted though is the fear that the black community have of the police in the novel: Starr recalls the talk she had as a twelve year old
“Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do,” he said. “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.”
The novel charts the progress of the investigation into Khalil’s death – Starr’s struggle to find the courage to speak out, the defensiveness and closed-ranks of the police as they interview Starr, the media interest in ‘the witness’, the testimony to the Grand Jury and their eventual decision whether to indict or not.
Alongside this, Starr and her family are having to deal with their own issues within the family and their neighbourhood: Starr’s half-brother, Seven, is living with and being raised by the local gang leader, King of the King Lords, who is physically abusing his sisters and mother; gang violence blights the community as the King Lords and Garden Disciple clash; a young member of the King Lords, DeVante, is taken in and protected by Maverick, Starr’s dad.
The depiction of Maverick was particularly powerful: a man who made mistakes and who ended up caught up with the King Lords but who managed to leave them, albeit at a huge cost. He is a big-hearted and iconic person in the community, running the local store, and uncompromisingly loving to his family and protective. It is no surprise that of all the characters in the novel that Thomas sought for a prequel, she chose to focus on Maverick as her protagonist in Concrete Rose.
There is one moment, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, which is particularly chilling and prescient: Maverick is approached by two officers who make him lie on the ground, despite the fact the he has done nothing criminal, officers who press a knee into his back as they check his papers and identity.
This novel is deeply rooted in the real, troubled world of the Black Lives Matter movement and there is something powerful in Starr’s recitation of the black victims of violence and injustice.
It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It’s about way more than that though. It’s about Seven. Sekani. Kenya. DeVante.
It’s also about Oscar.
It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first—Emmett.
The messed-up part? There are so many more.
There is no doubt that this roll call of victims holds real power, but within the novel there are moments that feel a little – for want of another, better word – preachy: one point really stuck for me. Chris, a white student from Williamson and Starr’s boyfriend for a year asks
Why do some black people give their kids odd names? I mean, look at you guys’ names. They’re not normal.
Again, this was another excuse for Starr and Seven to give a short lecture about perspective and “the trap of the white standard”. Important? Certainly. Fluent within the novel? Not so much.
However, giving the benefit of the doubt, perhaps as a YA novel, Thomas needed to be very clear with her message, but it stood out particularly considering that Thomas seemed very keen on not talking down her audience in terms of sex, language and violence.
What I Liked
- Starr as a narrative voice, who seemed very convincing in very challenging roles, in the both Garden Heights and Williamson, as daughter and as young woman, as a spokeswoman and as a victim struggling with her own post-traumatic stress.
- The family closeness between Maverick, Starr, Seven, Sekani, Kenya and Uncle Carlos.
The prescience and power of the narrative’s events and its theme: Black Lives Matter
What Could Have Been Different
- Slightly less didactic tone in places