Monday, August 6, 2018

IF WE HAD KNOWN :: Elise Juska

A version of this review previously ran in Shelf Awareness and appears here with permission.

As mass shootings continue unchecked in the United States, the crisis is often reflected in works of fiction. Elise Juska (The Blessings) takes a notable approach in her latest novel, contemplating post-shooting fallout from multiple perspectives, none of which is the shooter or anyone at the scene. The narrators and secondary characters in If We Had Known may be on the periphery of the tragedy, but the ripples in their lives are no less engrossing.

Maggie Daley teaches English 101 to all Central Maine State freshmen. Maggie's sense of self is inextricably intertwined with being a professor, and she prides herself on the trust fostered in her classroom. When she realizes the shooter is a former pupil, she digs up an essay he wrote and begins to question her memories of and reactions to him from four years earlier.

Another former student writes a Facebook post mentioning the "really weird" paper from Maggie's class. Social media comments pour in, adding recollections of the shooter viewed through a newly skewed lens. When the essay becomes public, the maelstrom threatens Maggie's career and her perception of her relationships, including that with her fragile daughter.

Juska's compelling narrative tackles complex issues about society's judgment of and responsibility for others. Can we accurately predict violent acts? Who is responsible for intervening? Are we oblivious to the signs or do we ignore them? Maggie's relationships with her lover, ex-husband and daughter are evidence that we all miss signs every day, even when those closest to us are sending them.

STREET SENSE: An interesting take on the mass shooter scenario that delves into larger issues of responsibility for and judgment of others. If you find these issues interesting, Juska's narrative will likely appeal.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  That, he thought, was the Internet in general: a lonely landscape, a largely barren place but with these rare bursts of not-loneliness, these moments of connection that made it worthwhile sometimes.

COVER NERD SAYS: There's a lot to like about the concept of this cover, but I have a couple issues with it. Mostly, I have to admit, the title. This may have more to do with the fact that my brain is fossilizing, but I could never really remember the title of the book. That's a problem. "If We Had Known," "Should We Have Known," "We Should Have Known," all different variations would go through my head as I tried to pull the correct version out of my sieve-like nooks and crannies. I think the cover image is great, particularly the bullet hole through the "O," but the overall cover might have been stronger without either (1) such a long title or (2) a less stark color contrast. I'm obviously picking nits and being cranky, but hey, no one is surprised by that. I like this cover a good deal, just don't love it. (NOTE: Though now that I look at it months after writing this review, I like it a bit more. Go figure.)

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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