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- Why I read it: Cover, awards, recommendations, modern classic
- Disclosure: Received my final published edition from Paperback Swap.
While on trial as an accomplice to a murder, sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon records his experiences in prison and in the courtroom in the form of a film script as he tries to come to terms with the course his life has taken.There are some YA books so ingrained in the modern psyche that it seems pointless to review them - Harry Potter, obviously, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (which I just finished this week!), anything by Judy Blume or Meg Cabot. There are lots more that I'm forgetting, I'm sure, but that's beside the point. Monster very nearly falls into that category, but it's on the fringe enough that I figured it wouldn't hurt to spread the love around a little more - and love is exactly the right word.
As I mentioned in my blurb post, I really had no idea what to expect from this novel, other than that it was supposed to be good, and what I could glean from the cover. It took me awhile to pick it up, but once I did, I finished it in, max, an hour and a half. It's short, it's powerful, and it leaves us with more questions than it answers, without being confusing. What more can you ask from a novel?
What makes it all work is the character of Steve. Like every teenager, he's made mistakes. Unlike every teenager, he's made one that could cost him his life, either literally or figuratively, death row or life behind bars. This tension, and playing out of a usually small-scale issue on a big stage, reminded me a lot of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Honestly, what better metaphor for adolescence and especially high school could you have than a bunch of kids forced to kill or be killed? Monster, however, hits even closer to home, because it manages to be a metaphor and a real story at the same time. Steve is no Katniss, no Mockingjay-figurehead-idea. He's smart, he's funny, he wants to be liked, he's terrified. He's real. There wasn't a single moment in this novel he wasn't relatable, even when I didn't always agree with his choices. Actually, there isn't a YA character in recent memory I've liked more, which only furthers the idea of monsters. Even as the evidence piles high, we don't want to believe he is one. We want to believe he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, a victim of circumstance, racial profiling, anything - as long as he's not a monster.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the big, ugly issue of race. While it's not at the center of the novel, as I'd originally thought it might be, it's a major factor, though we're never quite sure how major. At least three quarters of the characters are black, Latino, or somehow "of color," though it's difficult to tell as Steve doesn't seem too bothered to inform readers of his screenplay draft. Is the witness to the crime that implicates Steve white? Is he a victim of racial profiling? We aren't sure. Is the novel itself, with a clearly black character on the cover, a victim too? Is that why it hasn't had quite the impact of similar novels such as Speak even when it's equally good? Again, we aren't sure. In short, as a white reader, it raises uncomfortable questions, but they're questions that are important and should be dealt with, and they never descend into guilt trips. It's brilliant, and for style alone I will definitely be returning to Walter Dean Myers's work in the future. (I already got a little lost perusing his bibliography as I was writing this review!)
As usual, there's so much more I could write about - the excellent device of the screenplay, Steve's family life, the court scenes that I'm always a sucker for. But why do that when I can really sum it up in one sentence? Just read the book. Five out of five stars.