I thank the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
This is a Young Adult novel for all ages, as is the case with the best in the genre. It is the story of a girl, Alex, a great basketball player and fairly popular, whose younger sister, Jenny, gets killed during an armed robbery at a convenience store. The girls were playing basketball with school in a bad neighbourhood, and she had sent her sister to get her a drink from the store while she finished getting dressed. Her sister seemed to get caught in the crossfire of the robbers, who also killed the owner of the store, and died in Alex’s arm. She had carried her guilt and her grief with her, and despite therapy and medication, she could not go back to her old life. The police suspected that a gang of young girls were responsible for the robbery and the murders, but were unable to prove it. Feeling depressed, suicidal, and not caring about the consequences, Alex decides to go undercover and to try and infiltrate the gang to discover the truth and to obtain evidence to convict the killers (or perhaps get her own revenge). As you can imagine, things are far from straightforward, and Alex discovers a truth or two more than she had bargained for.
The story is told in the first person from Alex’s point of view. The author is good at reflecting the girl’s emotions, her grief, her rage, her hate, her desperation, and her fear and paranoia. Although I know some readers shy away from first person narrators, Alex is so focused on her plans and on getting justice (or revenge) for her sister’s death that she hardly ever strays too far from her feelings towards her sister and family, the situation at hand, and her plans. She does not spend pages talking about her looks, or about those of others. She is not self-obsessed. She is obsessed with her sister’s death and by the killers. She has fears, regrets, and at times is worried that she will not be able to accomplish what she set to do. She gets sick, she makes the wrong decisions, she hesitates, she lies, pretends, abuses the trust of those who love her, but she is easy to empathise with, due to the rawness of her emotions and the depth of her grief. We might not like what she does, and we might not know enough of her before this to truly get a sense of how the experience has changed her, but there are enough glimpses of her previous life to know that she was never perfect (she confesses to stealing things from shops when she was younger) but she loved her family and adored her sister.
The story show us the contrast between Alex’s normal life (she lives in a nice house, has her own car, can go to basketball camp and college without worrying about money, and she comes from a good upper middle-class family. It is true that her mother has not coped well with her grief and blames her for her sister’s death and is drinking too much, but her father continues to support her, and her seemed to be a happy family before the tragedy struck), and the lives of the girls of the Black Diamond gang. We get to know them individually, especially Natice, the girl she works with at the pizza place, and we discover that even the most violent and aggressive of them are human beings, who have grown up in difficult situations, without access to any of the privileges Alex grew-up with, and some have had to endure terrible abuse. If at first, she is somebody who had no empathy or understanding for the experiences of the people who live on the other side of the tracks, she gets many of her prejudices challenged and she learns to see the person behind the label.
Alex’s task, though, is not a sociological experiment. She ‘goes native’ with all the risks it entails. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, she risks losing herself in the process. To be convincing enough to be let into their secrets, she has to become one of the girls, and that means doing morally questionable things and committing crimes. Although she might not like what she does, and at times is horrified by her behaviour and that of the other girls, she is honest enough to herself to admit that she enjoys some aspects of the process. She becomes really close to some of the girls but the circumstances conspire to remind her of why she is really there.
This is a novel that explores many types of grief and shows us that not everybody reacts the same way to the loss of a loved one. It also shows us that revenge and justice are not always as simple, pure, and blind as we might think. After all, we are not heroes in a comic, and playing vigilante is far from easy or glamorous. Very few things in life are black or white, and it is easier to hate something or somebody unknown than an individual we have come to care about.
I particularly liked the realistic psychological portrayals of the characters and the way all the girls are shown as both good and bad. Yes, Alex manages to get away with many things that seem very difficult at her age, especially when she had led a reasonably sheltered life, but this is a standard trope of the genre and she is shown as a resourceful young woman who takes all difficulties in her stride.
The book is well-written, with enough descriptions to make us feel as if we were there, but without excessive details. There is action, and the pace is quick. As we share the main character’s point of view, we suffer with her, worry for her safety, and are swept by the maelstrom and chaos of the gang life. The ending is realistic and I think most readers will find it satisfying. (And no, I won’t say anything else).
In sum, this is a novel of psychological depth and good emotional insight that looks closely at family relationships, friendships, grief, revenge, and gang culture. It does not shy from the ugliness and violence of that world and it constructs believable characters, some that we like and some that we dislike. It is not an easy book to read (as mentioned, there is violence, drug taking, and criminal behaviour) but it is one that grabs the reader at an emotional level and does not let go. It combines good action with strong characters and I recommend it to lovers of the genre and, in general, to those who enjoy well-written novels, dealing with complex matters and populated by diverse characters.