Published by Harlequin Mira Ink HarperCollins on October 20th 2016
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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.
I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Take a controversial topic away from it’s expected location, and the results could seem unrealistic. That’s not the case with N.D. Gomes début novel, Dear Charlie as she takes an all-too familiar news story in America and transfers it to 90’s UK.
Sixteen year old Sam should be living the teen dream of college, socialising, and pursuing his passion in music. But he can’t. Instead he has to move schools. He avoids eye contact. He watches his parents fall apart. Why? He’s the younger brother of Charlie Macmillan: ‘School Shooter’ and his life will never be the same again.
N.D. Gomes has taken a brave, bold step with Dear Charlie, especially for British readers, as her novel immediately brings comparisons to the horrific Dunblane shooting in 1996, the same year as this novel is set. While the circumstances are different, the impact it had on the country, and it’s attitudes to gun control and school security are exactly the same.
In Sam, Gomes has created a character full of grief, unable to either comprehend or acknowledge it, no matter how many therapy sessions he attends. It’s not until he meets a group of students at his new school, led by the rebellious Dougie, that he starts to question his feelings about the tragedy. For while others grieve for the victims, Sam needs to grieve for his brother – a young man with who he had a seemingly unbreakable bond. Sam spends a lot of his internal monologues trying to understand not only why Charlie committed this awful act, but how they drifted apart in he first place.
After several outings with this new group, Sam begins to open up, but only when prompted by Izzy, a girl with who he has a growing attraction to:
Nodding, I suddenly felt her arms around me. She hugged me tightly and it was then that I realised that no one had ever acknowledged my brother’s death. They talked of his actions, his troubles , the monsters inside his head. But they never talked about his death, or my family’s loss. My brother was dead and he was never coming back. Yes, I mourned him. Yes, I missed him. And I was sick of being ashamed of that.
Gomes touches on aspects of these sort of tragedies that rarely make the press – what about the family of the perpetrator? Although Sam’s parents relationship was already on a downward spiral, it’s now destroyed beyond repair. His dad delves deeper into the bottle, while his mum is stuck in the ‘denial’ stage of grief, neither of them having any time for Sam and his issues. Isolated and seen as pariahs in the town of Pembrook (even the post office are unsympathetic to their situation with hate mail) Sam often escape with Izzy and the group to the bigger city of Knightsbridge, as it gives him a sliver of anonymity. Unfortunately, Sam always has to return, and soon his house is covered in graffiti and bricks are thrown through their windows:
The Macmillan name was a curse. Everywhere we walked, the faces of the victims walked with us. We were perpetually haunted. Endlessly followed. And needlessly blamed.
Sam’s voice is rich and strikingly authentic as he tries to cope with his world falling apart around him, and Gomes utilises his first person narrative with ease, taking the reader through the peaks and troughs of the character’s emotions. Because of this narrative choice, there is little atmospheric set-up here, although the tension within the household often comes through. At times, this does give Dear Charlie a slightly flat feel, but Gomes brings it back at the half-way point with the repercussions of Sam’s letters.
Gomes clearly has a great way with words and can portray her character’s inner thoughts well enough for the reader to not only connect with them, but care and empathise as well. I’m fascinated to see what she writes next.
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