A high school shooter kills 36, including himself, and then a series of house fires annihilates the bereaved families.
“Three days after Caleb Raynor opened fire, the first house burned to the ground.” Valente’s debut tracks four survivors of a St. Louis–area high school massacre from their hiding places during the rampage through the grief-stricken weeks ahead, when, amid the funerals, the surviving families of the victims are incinerated in their sleep, so completely that no bodies are found. The chapters alternate between a collective first-person voice—“We stayed in. We did not move”—and close-up narration following Matt, Zola, Nick, and Christina as they attempt to process what they have been through and write profiles of their dead classmates for the yearbook. Additionally, there are chapters titled “A Brief History of Containment,” “A Brief History of Cremation (Or How The Body Burns),” and so on, which deliver big chunks of factual information, poetically phrased. Matt was in the restroom making out with his boyfriend and exited to find his friend Caroline Black dead on the floor in a pool of blood. Zola was in the library, where the most people were killed—her memories are beyond description. Christina's and Nick’s classes were spared a visit from the shooter, but Christina’s boyfriend was shot in the leg. A new set of devastating images haunts the four as the house fires begin, “the charring of so many homes that had held bodies that had held memories, a matryoshka of grief.” The novel itself is a matryoshka of grief, piling surreal tragedy on top of truth-inspired tragedy to poor effect. We never learn anything about the shooter or his motives, and the resolution of the mystery plot simply doesn’t fly.
Valente is a promising writer. She should write something else.