Elise Juska’s fifth novel, If We Had Known, is a spare and elegant novel about characters as they live in the aftermath of a mass shooting in a mall. What’s most interesting about this story is that aside from the mother of the shooter, most of the characters only knew the killer or any of his victims from a distance. The central character is a teacher who once had the shooter in a class, four years before the shooting. She saw the student twice a week for fourteen weeks, and finds herself at the center or the unfolding turmoil. Another character, a former classmate, remembers a strange paper the shooter once wrote. Another character had her hair styled by one of the victims. What Juska does is show the ripples as they fan out from the shooting. She mostly avoids the perhaps more sensational stories of eye-witnesses to the violence or the more interior stories of grief from the victims’ loved ones. The novel’s power lies in the way Juska reveals the truly devastating effects not only for the victims of these shootings but for entire communities. One of the most viscerally related storylines centers around the daughter of the teacher. A young woman on the cusp of her college career, she’s already prone to anxiety and an eating disorder. Her struggles to maintain a sense of herself while studying, dating, dealing with social media, societal pressures, are all amplified by the swirling debris flowing outward from the shooting. Juska’s fifth novel is a powerful piece of work on many levels, and it should resonate with readers no matter where they stand on the issues concerning the proliferation of guns in America. The novel doesn’t demand any particular political stance from its readers. It only asks us to consider the aftermath of the all-too-frequent mass-shootings. In that regard, it could be the most important book you read all year.

 

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One thought on “If We Had Known

  1. This is a must read! I loved The Blessings and One for Sorrow, Two for Joy. I had no idea you knew Elise. I used to live in the same building as her sister Sally; the neighborhoods in The Blessings and One for Sorrow are in Northeast Philadelphia (Fox Chase) and very familiar to me and Elise captures the people, surroundings and culture perfectly. I miss that neighborhood. Small world.

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