Thursday, January 31, 2019

On the Come Up

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to make it.

Before I attempt to frame some of my thoughts about this story, I'll quote Neil Gaiman:

“Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”

This idea -- that reading fosters empathy -- is the main reason I decided to review On the Come Up.  Because if I'm completely honest, as a middle-class white person, I'm pretty nervous about writing a review on this book.  Because: What do I know?  And what right do I have to comment?  Those questions tugged on my anxiety strings.  But louder, was a call to Empathetic Arms; my belief that more middle-class white people should read more widely, acquaint themselves with more voices -- hear diverse stories (and then talk about them).  So though I can't tell you if Angie Thomas writes these voices authentically or confirm whether her novels capture the spirit of the neighbourhoods she describes (though I have it on good authority she does), I can do what I do for any other work of fiction I read -- share what the narrative voice says to me and what feelings I feel are captured (although I'm still a little nervous).

My first note, is that reading this from the outside, I felt some acclimatising needed to take place.  The dialogue read like a dialect of my own tongue so foreign to me I had to sometimes pause, re-read, and decode characters' speech.  Perhaps this might be taken as an indicator of authenticity in and of itself, ha! 

The messages -- that women can have ambitions and that's more than okay, that dreams may take a fight, and that breaking with expectations can be part of that fight -- will speak to a lot of people, from all walks of life.  Those translate loud and clear.  The harsh and heart-aching struggles for low-income families hit me hard.  Hard too, was riding the climbing click-click-click of Thomas' carefully-plotted rollercoaster alongside Bri -- knowing we both would need to come slamming down before the ride was over.  Because for sure, Bri makes some choices that had me going, "No!  Don't do it! She did it..."  But after the climb and slam, there was also relief, progress, learning and closure.  The plot is tight.

Lastly, advisory-wise, there's some heavy content references, so concerned parents could consider reading alongside / before their kids.  There are no sex scenes. There's a fair amount of cussing. 

If you loved The Hate U Give, you don't need this review -- you'll be lining up to get your hands on a copy of this (same neighbourhood, new people) sequel next week.  But if you're someone who sees these covers and doesn't identify with what you see, this review's for you: Read wider; support more voices; empathise more. 

ARC received from Walker.
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