Few events ignite more horror and shock than a school shooting. News sources cover the story constantly, and everyone’s heart goes out to the families of the victims. But what about the family of the shooter? Junior Alys Aronson’s perfectly structured life shatters as soon as her older brother begins firing shots in their quiet Wisconsin high school, killing many, including himself. He even turns the gun on Alys, though he spares her.
Like everyone else, Alys is stunned by Luke’s violent behavior. Sure, he went through deep mood swings and was bitterly sarcastic, but that was just a teenage phase. Luke was clever; he was going to MIT in the fall; he had been her friend since they were kids. What went wrong?
Alys has to search for answers by herself, because in the wake of the tragedy her best friend and her boyfriend have abandoned her. Even her ex-hippie parents don’t offer much of a helping hand – the bottle is much easier to turn to than Alys. In Alys’s pain and panic, she starts to believe that she can see her brother’s ghost. Even if he’s just a figment of her distraught mind, can Luke provide some closure?
Silent Alarm is unlike any other book that I’ve ever read. First of all, Banash deserves major credit for undertaking the difficult project of telling the story from the perspective of the shooter’s sister. Alys was both a bystander and a victim, which added depth to her otherwise simple character. She was a violin prodigy, which I found to be cliched, but her talent helped underline Luke’s jealousy. As for Luke, I was satisfied with his character development. To keep the reader intrigued, Banash avoided making him a stereotypical monster, but she didn't make him a martyr, either. In doing so, the reader is able to see him not as an evil robot, but as a human whose inability to deal with his psychological issues led him to commit an atrocity.
Supporting characters, while few, provide a strong backbone to the story. Though the novel is told in first person, the insight of characters like Riley, Luke’s best friend; Grace, the violin tutor; and all the journalists adds dimension. They remind us of how we act when school shootings happen, and they gently show us that maybe parents and siblings of the shooter shouldn’t be judged as harshly as they often are. As for the flow of the book, it was cohesive and sharp. Banash makes a wonderful use of parentheses and italics to illustrate Alys’s confused mind.
The reason this book didn’t get five stars from me is partly because of the first line, “Life changes in a second.” Maybe it’s just me, but there are way too many “life” metaphors out there. I prefer a subtle comparison rather than one plopped immediately on the page. The last three pages were also a bit of a disappointment. While it contained the required elements of hope and forgiveness, it seemed to drag on thanks to a lack of action or dialogue. Besides those details, Silent Alarm is definitely a book to check out or keep on your home shelf. Mature teens and fans of Laurie Halse Anderson will enjoy this gritty, realistic drama.