Death should never meet the young. But it did. Thanks to my brother, death made fourteen new friends that day. Maybe even fifteen, if you count Charlie.
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.
When you hear about someone committing a terrible crime on the news, what’s your first thought? I doubt it’s for the family of the person whose committed the crime, that’s for sure. Think about it for a minute: How do you reconcile a person you thought you knew with the person that murdered fourteen people in cold blood? How must it feel to be blamed for the actions of your own family member, knowing that no one will believe you when you say you didn’t know they were going to do it. Dear Charlie poses exactly those questions, offering a new perspective and unflinching portrayal of a family torn apart by guilt and grief.
Sam’s brother Charlie walked into his school and shot fourteen people before killing himself. Set in 90’s British suburbia, Sam is struggling to reconcile the brother he knew with the person who committed the atrocity. This is not a story concerned with ‘why?’ or ‘how?’, instead, the story focuses on the aftermath of the shooting and the impact of the event on the people Charlie left behind. I really liked the decision to focus on the effect of the crime as opposed to the cause, a trick that reminded me a little of a UKYA version of one of my favourite books: 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult. While Picoult looks at the ripple effect from the view point of the family of a victim as well as the family of the shooter, Gomes chooses to focus solely on Charlie’s family; simply and bleakly capturing a family in disarray.
The story follows Sam over a number of months as he struggles to find a place in his new reality: attending therapy, starting a new school and failing to connect with his parents, who are barely making it through each day themselves. Gomes writes in a skillful and straightforward way, focusing on the information and the stories that don’t often make their way into newspapers. How do the families of criminals deal with their own grief and is it right, or even okay, to mourn for people like Charlie?
Told solely from a first person perspective, the author creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that allows the reader to connect with Sam on an emotional level. Bold ideas require bold writing, and the prose is satisfyingly authentic without slipping into the melodramatic. The reader gets to see the world as Sam does, becoming party to the guilt, anger and shame he feels, as well as deep confusion over how to deal with his brother’s death as an event in its own right. Sam’s relationships with the people around him are also beautifully executed, demonstrating the impact that such a momentous event can shape the way we connect with the people we love and the people we meet.
The story is set in mid-to-late 90’s Britain, with each chapter bearing the title of a song and a date. Considering the effort that I assume went into choosing the songs and setting the story in a specific era, I found the book curiously lacking in any defining sense of place or time. Maybe Gomes’ intention was for the reader to be able to imagine an event like this happening in their own town or suburb in any decade, but I would have liked a bit more. Aside from a few carefully placed pop-culture references, I couldn’t point to anything that really made me feel like the book was set in a specific era.
As the months pass and the story progresses, you come to realise that this book isn’t about Charlie. At all. It’s about Sam wading through his grief until eventually a new, different life begins to take shape. It’s about the impact of death in its many different guises and the basic human need to find someone to blame for your own, personal pain. Sometimes there are no easy answers and sometimes there aren’t any answers at all, and that’s something that we’ll all have to accept at some point in our lives. An absorbing, painful and eye-opening novel.
Star rating out of 5:
- Publisher: Mira Ink.
- Pages: 222.
- Publication Date: 20th October 2016.