Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds – review

I don’t normally go for YA books, and I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed any on This Girl’s Book Room, but if they’re not usually your cup of tea either please do stay with me; the book I’m talking about today is one that defies categorisation and quite simply should be read by everybody, whether you consider yourself a fan of YA or not. The book’s narrator is William, a 15 year old boy whose world is turned upside down one horrendous day when his older brother Shawn is shot dead. He is no stranger to gun violence; no one in this community is. When the first shots ring out he instinctively follows the rules that have been drummed into him and his friends: run, hide, lie down flat. But these are only the first set of rules to follow; the second set of rules are for what comes afterwards, when you’ve seen your loved ones lying dead on the ground, rules that are so ingrained among the inhabitants of the community that everyone knows them without knowing how or why. Rule 1: No crying. Rule 2: No snitching. Rule 3: Revenge. Following these rules isn’t a choice – it’s an obligation, which William sets out to fulfil, armed with Shawn’s gun. He steps into the lift that will take him down and out of his block – and then the extraordinary happens. The lift stops at the next floor, and as the doors open he is joined by a wholly unexpected companion, one who he used to know very well; one who is now dead. At each floor the lift stops and at each floor William encounters another ghost, all of them people who played a significant part in his life, and who all died untimely and violent deaths as the cycle of killing and revenge spun on and on. As they tell their stories, the biggest tragedy of all comes into focus, namely that no death in these circumstances can ever be isolated, but rather becomes the catalyst for more killing, a link in a heartbreaking chain that has no end in sight.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Long Way Down is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read; I started reading and didn’t stop until I was done, and when I was done I was a broken wreck. The subject matter alone pretty much guarantees a novel of emotional heft, but here’s the real stroke of genius: it’s entirely written in verse. I once heard poetry described as “language under pressure”, and that’s precisely the effect it has here – pressure, intensity and immediacy. The writing is sparse, sometimes only a handful of words on a page, but with this method of storytelling every single word has to count, and it does. Even the briefest phrases are chosen with almost excruciating care, and I was left completely stunned by the raw emotional power that could be contained in such spare poetry, with every single word a blow. I don’t know whether the author intended the effect to be similar to the gunshots that are pivotal to his story, but that’s how reading it felt – short, sharp hits of pain. I’ve never experienced poetry used in this way before, and it blew me away.

Then there are the searching questions that the author leaves bouncing round your head after the final page. As William rides down in the lift, he is confronted with the possibility that perhaps there is a choice. By exacting revenge, he might hope to assuage at least some of the feelings of grief and injustice triggered by the murder of his beloved brother; yet in doing so he is making himself the next link in the chain of brutality and ensuring the killing will continue – he might even be the next to die. Or he could turn round, go home and break that chain, and take a stand against the rules that call for more death, over and over again… How much of our existence is a choice, and how much is forced upon us by our upbringing, our community, the social circumstances in which we find ourselves? Judgement from a place of privilege is absurdly easy, but Jason Reynold’s mission is to make it difficult, and to sweep away any preconceptions we may have had.

Reading – and enjoying – this novel so much also opened my eyes as to how narrow my reading often is, and how all too often I dismiss books, almost without thinking about it, because they don’t fit into my preconceived ideas about what is interesting, relatable or relevant to me. I should say a huge thank you to Alfie @Elfcouncillor for the glowing recommendation, without which this amazing novel would have completely passed me by! If you’ve read it I’d love to hear your thoughts as always.

See you back on the blog very soon x

2 thoughts on “Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds – review

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