“You aren’t allowed to grieve for someone like Luka. It doesn’t matter if he was an amazing brother. Luka Gilchrist was a monster. Write it on the board a hundred times and don’t ever forget it” (Armstrong 2018, p. 10).
I really enjoyed this book, but it wasn’t quite as heavy as I was expecting a book about the aftermath of a school shooting to be. I expected some commentary about bullying and psychological torment, and while this certainly happens to Skye (the sister of one of the shooters), the book focuses more on Skye trying to figure out who is tormenting her about the shooting. This doesn’t make the book terrible, by any means; I still really enjoyed reading the story. It does, however, fall more on the side of entertainment than it does social commentary or meaningful literature.
Aftermath, as the title implies, follows the harrowing events of a school shooting, as told by a young teen named Skye Gilchrist. Skye lost her brother Luka in the shooting, but there’s a major twist: he was one of the shooters, not one of the victims. Devastated by this turn of events, Skye and her remaining family move out of town to avoid the backlash, staying away for several years. This breaks the heart of her best friend and childhood crush Jesse, who turns away from his schoolwork and becomes a bit of a “bad boy” in her absence. The novel begins with Skye returning to her old town to attend high school and live with her aunt Mae, facing the stares and whispered comments about her family head-on. As she reconnects with Jesse, Skye begins to unravel a vicious plot to make her look crazy and deranged, and soon finds out that police might not have gotten the full story of her brother’s involvement in the shooting.
The first (and potentially biggest) problem I had with this book is that (SPOILER ALERT) it took away any culpability Luka might have had in the shooting at the very end. When a book is billed as a story about the sister of a school shooter, you expect that person to have actually committed a serious crime. At the end of the novel, however, Skye finds out that her brother was hiding the gun he was found with in a bathroom, anonymously calling the cops to report a school shooting instead of committing the shooting himself. While some of the elements I was expecting were there (Skye being blamed, her father leaving because of the incident, Skye feeling like she couldn’t grieve her brother because of what he’d done, etc.) I would’ve been more impressed if Armstrong had spoken with the actual families of school shooters to dig deep into what it’s like to deal with the aftermath of having a REAL criminal in the family. Again, this twist didn’t make the book a bad one, but it felt like a bit of a cop-out to me. If you’re going to write a book about the sibling of a school shooter, you should be prepared to go all the way with it.
Another thing this book did that annoyed me a little bit was focus too heavily on the mystery of who was tormenting Skye, instead of focusing on the shooting itself. While I was expecting Skye to meet with the families of the victims and talk to them, learning their stories, the book focused much more on figuring out who was blackmailing and framing Skye. This made for an extremely interesting and intriguing mystery, but took the focus away from the tragedy that provided the catalyst for the entire plot of the book. I found it odd that Armstrong wouldn’t focus more on the actual aftermath of the shooting, as the title implies: what changed about the town and school policy; how people view the victims, culprits, and families; and how was everyone coping after a mass tragedy? We got tiny glimpses of this, but not enough to be entirely satisfying for readers expecting a heavy story about a school shooting. This is a very real topic in America today, and I wanted more commentary on that instead of a mystery novel.
From the above criticisms, you might be under the impression that I hated this book, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I actually genuinely enjoyed this book, from the sweet romance to the serious themes explored within it. In fact, my favorite part of the book was Jesse’s arc, as he learns to accept the complicated feelings he has towards his brother’s death. While both Jesse and Skye agree that Jamil was a jerk, they both lament that he never got to grow into adulthood. As the two conclude, Jamil might have become a more mature, level-headed adult, building a relationship with Jesse as they aged. Unfortunately, due to the shooting, they never get the chance to find out what Jamil might’ve become, and have to deal with the mixed feelings of losing him while he was less than kind to the both of them. This struck me as being extremely realistic, portraying Jamil as an actual person instead of a tragic figure.
Another thing I really enjoyed was the romance, which I found to be incredibly sweet. I’m a sucker for a good romance, and Jesse and Skye had a very sweet friendship that bloomed into something more near the end. While it may have seemed rushed (given the fact that they hadn’t spoken in years and were in the middle of an awkward phase), I found myself rooting for the two of them as the novel progressed. I also enjoyed the subtle representation of Muslims in the novel, as it’s rare to see a Muslim character in fiction whose entire identity doesn’t revolve around their religion. Aside from mentions of holidays, the fact that Jesse’s mother wears a hijab, and the fact that Jesse doesn’t eat pork, his religion is never shoved in the reader’s face. As I think Armstrong intended, Jesse is simply someone who happens to be Muslim, and it only comes up a few times throughout the novel. In my opinion, casual representation is every bit as important as in-your-face representation, as it reflects the real world in which we live.
Though this book tackles a lot of heavier issues, it almost seems to be trying too hard to hit as many as it can at once. Not only does the plot revolve around a school shooting, but it also deals with issues like steroids, depression, bullying, and absentee or negligent parents. Focusing on just one of these issues would’ve been more than enough to sustain this book, but because it’s so short, focusing on all of these makes it feel rushed and crammed full of hot-button topics. At the same time, it doesn’t focus enough on the central issue: school shootings and the bullying that causes them. Again, I feel like this novel would’ve been much stronger if Skye and Jesse would’ve teamed up to investigate the motives behind the shooting while trying to clear Luka’s name, instead of focusing on Skye’s persecution as the shooter’s sister.
Overall, this book was relatively harmless. There aren’t any bad messages for teens, but I don’t feel like the novel had anything profound or life-changing to share. Perhaps this was Armstrong’s intent, to show us how commonplace school shootings are and how little they affect us as an audience. Regardless, I was expecting something much darker and grittier than what I got. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, but was surprised by the content. I likely wouldn’t recommend this to someone who has lived through a real school shooting, as I can’t attest to how accurate the portrayal of the aftermath is. It’s just as likely to trigger someone as it is to help them through the complicated emotions that come tied to a tragedy like this.
I would, however, recommend this book to fans of mystery, as it has a surprisingly good twist and an entertaining, suspenseful plot. It keeps you reading until the very last chapter, making it a quick and fun read. I look forward to reading some of Kelley Armstrong’s other work, as I enjoy her writing style and think she does a great job of building suspense and keeping her readers invested in the plot. It might not be life-changing, but it was an enjoyable read nonetheless.
Armstrong, K. (2018). Aftermath. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers.