At sixteen, Sam Macmillan is supposed to be thinking about girls, homework and his upcoming application to music college, not picking up the pieces after the school shooting that his brother Charlie committed. Yet as Sam desperately tries to hang on to the memories he has of his brother, the media storm surrounding their family threatens to destroy everything. And Sam has to question all he thought he knew about life, death, right and wrong.
School shootings are a sad phenomenon of our time and have been the subject of numerous YA novels in the past years. I’ve read two of those, Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and Marieke Nijkamp’s This is Where It Ends. Both are gripping, emotional novels, each dealing with different points of view on the matter. Quick’s book is written from the point of view of the shooter, while Nijkamp’s novel shows us differing perspectives of teens involved in a school shooting. Dear Charlie takes a very different tack, though its story is equally compelling and emotional. N.D. Gomes focuses her novel on the aftermath of a school shooting and what happens to the family of the culprit.
What sets Dear Charlie apart from many narratives featuring school shootings is its UK setting, instead of the more common US setting. I’d never heard of school shootings in the UK and some quick research revealed that there haven’t actually been any school shootings in which a student was the shooter, though the 1996 Dunblane shootings did kill 16 primary school students. What made the story even more effective to me, was the fact that it was set in 1996, the year in which I was 16/17 and so would have been the same age as Sam and the friends he makes at his new school could have been more extreme version of my friends—we weren’t quite goth or ego, but we were close. Gomes evokes the era very well, both through music and other pop culture phenomenons. Every chapter heading is a song from that time and it could have served as a playlist for my last year of grammar school.
Dear Charlie’s narrative is powerful due to the close focus on Sam. Sam is shown in all his facets, sometimes he can be a jerk, but he is loveable and his utter bewilderment at the predicament he’s found himself is heartbreaking. The cognitive dissonance between ‘his’ Charlie and the Charlie shown in the media and Sam’s struggle to make sense of this disparity is at the heart of the story. As is Sam’s difficulty in coming to terms with what happened and what it means to his life. Because while he not only lost his brother and schoolmates and teachers, he has also lost his place in his community. The family is harassed by people on the street, their house vandalised, and generally shunned by their community. When Sam has to move schools to a school a village over, he is shunned and bullied by his class mates, only finding acceptance among a small group of outsiders.
And while Sam is trying to cope with all of the above, he also has to deal with all of the usual teenage stuff, such as falling in love, trying to figure out how to fit into a new group of friends, and navigating the generally choppy waters of the last year of secondary education. I loved his group of friends. Izzy, Dougie, Worm, Max, and Debbie form a safety net for Sam, though this isn’t without its troubles either. The slowly growing attraction between Sam and Izzy created ripples in the group’s dynamic that soon turn into waves that topple Sam over. I really liked how Gomes played this out and the final resolution to how the group fits together.
Another interesting element of the narrative is Sam’s relationship with his parents and their relationship to each other. We witness the breakdown of Sam’s parents’ marriage and their coping (or not coping) with what happened to Charlie. Sam’s feelings of isolation in his own home and the complete shutdown of communications between the three of them were painful to read, but felt so true, that when occasionally they do seem to reach each other it feels like a ray of light in the darkness.
Dear Charlie is a heart-breaking book that ends on hope. We follow Sam to the depths of his grief and confusion, but we also see him climb out of them with the help of his friends and his therapist, whose role I loved. It is a searingly emotional book, but one that’s lightened by Sam’s dark sense of humour. I loved this book, for Sam and for its unconventional look at the aftermath of a school shooting. Dear Charlie is N.D. Gomes’ debut YA novel, but hopefully not her last because I greatly enjoyed her writing. Highly recommended.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.