This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp

In the past few years, I’ve added a lot of YA books to my to-read list that I doubt I’ll get to them all. One of the advantages of having a to-read list at Goodreads is that I receive notifications whenever there’s a discount on the eBook edition of one of those books. And that’s how This Is Where It Ends made it to my Kindle.

 

I’d seen this book before, and even before reading the book description, the striking cover image clearly indicates it’s a story about a school shooting. I’ll even interpret the varied color pieces of chalk to mean that these events are going to be viewed through different lenses.

I mostly read YA contemporary fantasy, but every now and then I’ll pick up a straightforward YA contemporary, particularly if it deals with protagonists facing some kind of struggle with their identity. That’s what I like most about YA—the characters are teens, so they’re still in formation and making mistakes with the opportunity to learn about themselves. Reading a book about a school shooting is a little bit outside my comfort zone, mostly because being a high school teacher, the thought of one occurring where I work terrifies me. Unfortunately, no one knows what might trigger someone to pull that trigger, so all we can be is vigilant and aware of the people around us.

Nijkamp’s book tackles this head on by telling the story from four points of view, in various places around the school during the shooting, each with a different relationship to the shooter. Normally, I’m not the biggest fan of stories told from more than two first-person narrators, but here it works exceptionally well because of the immediacy of the situation and these characters’ relationships with each other and the shooter. It also helps that not all four of them are in the same place, so the story can be told both inside and outside the school’s auditorium when the shooter takes the school hostage.

Let’s take attendance. Our shooter is Tyler, holding most of the school hostage in the auditorium. Our four narrators are: (1) Autumn, Ty’s sister and aspiring dancer, who wants to audition for Julliard. (2) Sylv, Autumn’s girlfriend, who had a past incident with Tyler. (3) Tomás, Sylv’s brother, who is a kind of class clown/troublemaker and once had a run-in with Tyler. (4) Claire, school track star and Tyler’s ex-girlfriend. There are also a few other characters we see via those narrators, such as Claire’s teammate Chris, Tomás’s partner-in-crime Fareed, and Claire’s younger brother Matt.

The book starts with Autumn and Sylv in the auditorium along with most of the school, as the principal is delivering her start-of-semester speech. But Tomás and Fareed are breaking into the principal’s office, and Claire and Chris are outside with the track team. The events of the story take place over the course of an hour, with each chapter covering a few minutes of narration from each of the four narrators. Once I got used to the format, I found it fascinating and meticulously detailed. The characters’ actions and reactions were believable, and when each provided some backstory, I read it like their lives flashing before their eyes as often happens when someone is faced with their own mortality. At times, it was gripping.

But once or twice, I found some details that didn’t seem real for me. Maybe they come from years and years working in a public school, but why was almost everyone in the auditorium? What about office secretaries, custodial staff, cafeteria staff, and so on? A security guard is mentioned and shown, but what about everyone else who wouldn’t have a reason to be in the assembly? Of course, this is a minor issue—and only one that someone who works in a school might have—but it made me wonder how Tyler’s actions before he started shooting in the auditorium would have played out in a realistic setting. And then it made me hope that no school ever has to find out.

By the end of the book, I was genuinely attached to these characters and praying for their safety, and I got a little choked up when some things happened to some of them. I will not spoil further by stating whether everyone lives or not. I applaud the bravery of them when faced with the challenging situation, just as I would applaud any such student heroes in a real school shooting.

The ending and epilogue don’t fully provide closure to the book, but that’s fine. In reality, you don’t always get closure, and victims of mass shootings sadly have to live with the memory of the event. Thus, the book almost feels like the memoirs of these four characters recounting the event rather than a piece of fiction. It’s visceral, and the themes of community, individual bravery, and societal problems (mass shootings, abuse, and others) are clear.

Despite only a few plot contrivances in the story’s set-up, the structure of the book and its different narrators are compelling. I wish stories of mass shootings, particularly ones in schools, would remain fictional where it can come to an end, but for those impacted in reality, the grief and memories don’t end as quickly. This Is Where It Ends deserves FOUR AND A HALF STARS.

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This Is Where It Ends is available at Amazon.

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