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Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: Silent Alarm by Jennifer Banash

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Title: Silent Alarm
Author: Jennifer Banash
Publisher: Penguin
Pub. Date: March 10, 2015
Genre: Young Adult
Rec. Age Level: 12+
Pages: 336
More by this author: White Lines, The Elite books

Alys’s whole world was comprised of the history project that was due, her upcoming violin audition, being held tightly in the arms of her boyfriend, Ben, and laughing with her best friend, Delilah. At least it was—until she found herself on the wrong end of a shotgun in the school library. Her suburban high school had become one of those places you hear about on the news—a place where some disaffected youth decided to end it all and take as many of his teachers and classmates with him as he could. Except, in this story, that youth was Alys’s own brother, Luke. He killed fifteen others and himself, but spared her—though she’ll never know why.

Alys’s downward spiral begins instantly, and there seems to be no bottom. A heartbreaking and beautifully told story.
In her newest novel, Silent Alarm, Jennifer Banash explores the emotional topic of school shootings and their aftermaths from the point-of-view of the shooter's sister. Alys is a daughter, a musician, a best friend, and a girlfriend, but, after her brother opens fire on their school campus and then kills himself, Alys is only the sister of a murderer. Her parents, incapacitated by grief and guilt, retreat within themselves, leaving Alys to work through her complicated feelings and confusion by herself. Because Luke took his own life as well, the entire community, including Alys's best friend and boyfriend, blame Alys for not noticing her brother's dangerous downward spiral and preventing its culmination. 
“'I'm sorry,' I say for what feels like the millionth time. I know, even as my mouth forms the words, that I will say them for the rest of my life. Forever. That there will never be a time when I am not, in some small way, apologizing for the damage my brother has wrought. Luke is dead too, like Katie, I know, but this makes no difference. My grief will always be less important.” 
A large part of Alys's inner struggle centers around her inability to completely hate and revile her brother like the rest of the community does following the shooting. She is angry, hurt, and shocked, but she still loves him. Her final images of him, pointing the shotgun at her face, then turning and killing a girl nearby, doesn't match the brother she grew up with. The brother she rode to school with every morning, bickered with, and loved, even after he seemed to withdraw from their family and succumb to his dark moods, turning inward. Her confusion is pervasive, jumping off the page in an affecting way, forcing the reader to confront the difficult truth that Luke, despite her actions, is neither wholly good nor bad.
“The choir box is empty this morning, and I long for some kind of melody, the crash of the organ, the flight of angelic voices. My fingers twitch against the fabric of my dress and I close my eyes, remembering the Debussy, the Brahms lullaby I played each night before bed, my face pressed to the pad beneath my chin, arms cutting the air around me. The fact that Luke doesn't deserve music, the blissful lilt and salvation of it, make me, for some reason, saddest of all.” 
Music is an important part of Alys's life, but, after the shooting, she separates herself from her violin and the solace it provides. Not only does Alys feel that she has lost that part of herself, she feels she no longer deserves to feel the joy it brings her. She questions whether she could have prevented her brother's actions - if only she had been less involved in her own life, if only she weren't so distracted by music while her brother suffered enough that he brought a gun to school and murdered their friends. She believes that, if her brother does not deserve music, she doesn't either. I especially loved Alys's conversations with her violin instructor, an older woman who has lived a long life filled with both love and loss. She is one of the very few characters in Silent Alarm who recognizes and acknowledges Alys's pain.
“It feels like I died with Luke, alongside all of those kids who looked up from gossiping in the quad, from the useless pages of their books in the library, to meet the barrel of my brother's gun, his face filled with hate. In a way, I died the moment Luke walked into that library, the moment we came face-to-face. Now I'm trapped in the land of the dead, a barren landscape, shards of bone cutting my feet, their voices a soft chatter, telling me to follow.”
Banash's decision to tell this story from Alys's point-of-view, rather than Luke's or a classmate's, was insightful. Alys provides the reader with a singular context through which to view the shooting because she is both a victim and a relative. It's unlikely that any other narrator would have the same struggle as Alys, whose two very different mental images of Luke - one as loving brother, one as murderer - are at war. Because of Alys's distinct voice and unique view of the situation and its aftermath, I was able to connect to Silent Alarm in a very real and powerful way.

Highly recommended.


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