Book Review: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

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Anyone who has read a few of my book related posts may know that I have a rocky history with YA fiction and I’m not entirely convinced by contemporary poetry. So you’d think that I’d definitely want to steer clear of a piece of YA fiction written entirely in verse. But Long Way Down is the kind of book that I couldn’t ignore for long. Loads of people I respect on Bookstagram loved it and I heard loads of praise for it in general. So, when To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before proved too much for me to handle, I decided it was time to give it a try. After all, it’s not a very long read so I knew I could blast through it in a matter of hours. And I am still trying, though not very hard, to read more poetry this year. It feels like a novel written in verse is the ideal way of doing this as I sometimes find it difficult to get into poetry. It’s not exactly a normal method of reading when you’ve got a collection of poems loosely tied together by a similar theme but that are all separate. As this one contained such a tight and concise narrative, I was excited to see how it would work.

Long Way Down is a narrative that takes place during a short elevator ride. It’s the story of Will who is dealing with the aftermath of his brother, Shawn, being shot. Growing up, Will was always told to follow “the rules”: don’t cry; don’t snitch; and get revenge. Will thinks he knows who killed Shawn so, according to the rules, he has to do what he has to do. Although, as we learn through the story, Will is struggling to do his duty and he is left in a confusing state of grief, fear, and anger. Throughout his journey, he is visited by the ghosts of his past as he tries to figure out what kind of man he wants to be.

Having read and been underwhelmed by The Hate U Give in August, I was interested to see how Reynolds dealt with the topic of gun violence and the effect that it has on young people. Whilst I think Angie Thomas did a good job I think she got too distracted along the way. Reynolds, however, really taps into the way young people are moulded in the type of culture that builds itself around gun violence. The idea of “the rules” that motivate everyone and cause an endless cycle. He is both literally and figuratively trapped for the duration of the narrative. But Long Way Down isn’t taking an overtly judgemental tone. Yes, it is speaking out against gun violence but it isn’t placing the blame squarely on anyone. That’s not its intention. Instead, it wants to show, through Matt, that there are real casualties beyond the people who end up in body bags.

Through the language and structure of the narrative, we see Will’s helplessness at every turn. The grief at losing a loved one is something we can all understand but he has the added weight of the rules on top of him. All he wants to do is mourn for his brother but, instead, all he can think about is revenge. It’s an idea that most readers won’t be able to understand but the universal theme of loss keeps us with Will. We can empathise with him and understand where some of his decisions are coming from. You experience his feelings with him and you feel his anger burst out of the pages. You see the senselessness of Shawn’s death and can see why Will wants revenge. In grief, all logical thought goes out of the window; something only amplified in a teenager who has already experienced so much loss in his short life.

Long Way Down is a heartbreaking tale that will haunt you long after you close its pages. It is beautifully written and gets to the heart of the issue. There are genuine gut-punching moments that you feel just as hard as Will would. Moments that will stop you in your tracks and force you to process the effect they have on the whole narrative. I think, for the most part, the all verse format really works with the story but I did find myself wanting a little more from some sections. Maybe it’s just the same issue I have with all contemporary poetry but some moments seemed a little too thin. But, for the most part, this is a wonderful but haunting read. It’s something everyone should experience and is a great way to introduce a narrative about an important issue.

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