"We're always one breath away from something, living or dying, sometimes it just can't be helped."
I didn't really get much out of Heather Gudenkauf's first novel, The Weight of Silence (which I read and reviewed almost exactly three years ago), but the premise of this one really appealed so I thought I'd give her another go. Happily, despite certain editorial issues, it actually succeeded in eliciting the suspense and forward momentum that The Weight of Silence promised but for me, never really delivered.
It's one of those books that launches you straight into the action near the climax - a 13 year-old girl calls her mother from a closet to say that there's a gunman in the school, then shots are fired and the line goes dead - before rewinding to the very start of the drama. When an alert is sounded and the local school in the small town of Broken Branch goes into lockdown, the teachers have no idea whether this is a drill or the real deal - all they can do is take the necessary steps to keep themselves and their students safe. Only one teacher knows the truth, as her class of young children is held hostage by a gunman who seems to have deliberately chosen their room as his target. Meanwhile, outside in the snow, parents and grandparents wait anxiously for news, the police struggle to cope with the growing mob, and several states away a mother lies in her hospital bed unaware of the peril being faced by her two beloved children...
Once again Gudenkauf uses a fast-changing narrative viewpoint to show how different individuals in a small-town community respond to a potentially devastating crisis. I didn't like her use of this device that much in The Weight of Silence because I found it distracting, but here she uses it to much greater effect, to explore characters' back stories and show us what's happening both inside and outside the school, gradually slotting pieces of the mystery into place as she goes. Her careful choice of voices helps lure the reader into an emotional web, in which we are invested in ALL of the key players and rooting for them every step of the way. Occasionally the back stories started to drag a bit and I found myself getting impatient to get back to what was happening inside the school - but mostly they just helped me to invest in the characters more deeply. I particularly liked the character of P.J., a little boy in the target classroom, though he's not one of the narrative voices (we see him mostly through the eyes of his sister Augie and his teacher, Mrs Oliver); other viewpoints include P.J. and Augie's grandfather, Will, and a female police officer called Meg.
One thing that REALLY bugged me about this book - and the main reason it dropped a full star - was the editing. The novel really needs a good proofreader round it; I was tempted to start correcting things myself, it was so bad. Words were added in or missed out, sentence structure was often clunky (a semi-colon or twenty would have helped in that department), grammatical and spelling errors appeared on almost every page... it was really quite distracting at times. I expect the odd typo in a novel, no matter how famous the author and powerful the publishing house, but some of these slips were just shoddy and jerked me right out of the story on more than one occasion.
The other thing that bothered me was the ending. Although it was a relief, it was just a little bit too clean for me. Obviously I'm not a U.S. citizen, I don't have any experience with these situations and over here the only people you routinely see with guns are people like the armed police at the airport or the guards outside an army base. Maybe these things end cleanly and without loss of life all the time. But to me it just didn't seem realistic. A police officer goes into the building alone to confront the gunman, and her backup seems to be miles behind. All hostages escape alive, even the elderly teacher who has been cuffed around throughout the gunman's reign of terror in her classroom. The police officer attempts to shoot the gunman from a mere few feet away, MISSES the first time, and doesn't kill him the second even though shots have been fired towards children. REALLY? I don't know... like I said, I'm no expert, but it just seemed a bit too convenient to me, and though it's surely satisfying to think that a crazed gunman will have to live with his actions for the rest of his life, I can't imagine a trained police officer not shooting to kill when the lives of a bunch of young children are at stake. I'm just sayin'.
***END OF SPOILER ALERT***
The bottom line? It was an enjoyable novel. The premise appealed to me, and I was hooked within the first couple of pages. I was invested in the characters and in how the lockdown was going to be resolved, I thought the rapid hopping between narrators worked very well this time, and I enjoyed both the gradual rounding out of the characters via their back stories, and the procedural elements as the people outside the school implemented each stage of the guidelines set in place to deal with a school intruder situation like this. It made me think about what I would do in each characters' shoes - always an interesting part of the reading experience - and drove home how much power you give someone, how skewed the odds instantly become, when you hand them a gun. The ending was a bit too... staged?... and Gudenkauf REALLY needs to get the whole book cleaned up to remove those hideous mistakes that litter her prose, but my opinion of her as an author has definitely gone UP and I'm now a lot more likely to read more of her work. Hopefully she'll just keep on getting better!
- "My knees feel weak at the thought and for the first time all day I'm really scared. The kind of scared that begins as a knot in your chest and gets bigger and bigger until that's all there is and there is no room left for air... It's the scared that comes from knowing how badly and how easily we can hurt another person."
- "That's the wonderful thing about the human heart, there's room enough for all kinds of love."
Source: I think we had a few duplicates of this book at the shop, so I nicked one! :)