How a story with little plot can be so profound

How To Be Safe by Tom McAllister

BOTTOM LINE: I loved it but know it is not for everyone

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publication Date: 3 April 2018
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Recently suspended for a so-called outburst, high school English teacher Anna Crawford is stewing over the injustice at home when she is shocked to see herself named on television as a suspect in a shooting at the school where she works. Though she is quickly exonerated, and the actual teenage murderer identified, her life is nevertheless held up for relentless scrutiny and judgment as this quiet town descends into media mania. Gun sales skyrocket, victims are transformed into martyrs, and the rules of public mourning are ruthlessly enforced. Anna decides to wholeheartedly reject the culpability she’s somehow been assigned, and the rampant sexism that comes with it, both in person and online. A piercing feminist howl written in trenchant prose, How to be Safe is a compulsively readable, darkly funny exposé of the hypocrisy that ensues when illusions of peace are shattered.”

My Thoughts: Every once in a while, a novel comes your way that catches you by surprise. Sometimes, the story is so powerful that it leaves you breathless. At other times, the characters are so real that you forget they are fictional. And then there are novels like How to be Safe. It is not necessarily a powerful story. While the topic is most definitely timely and sobering, there is not much to it. There is little plot, little action, and little movement in any direction. In addition, the characters are not that real. Anna is a symbol more than anything with little to no development of her character. Yet, this overly simple, somewhat boring story stopped me in my tracks page after page.

It did so by stint of the writing and the force of sentiments professed in what are seemingly simple sentences. For this is not a story in the traditional sense with a beginning that builds to a climax and finishes with the dénouement. It is a snapshot of a modern-day scenario with satiric aftereffects that speak volumes about the state of the nation. It is as much a political statement as it is a social commentary about gun violence and gun proponents. The actions taken by the town after the shooting border on absurd, and yet it is all too easy to understand that what was once absurd has a tendency these days to become an accepted reality. Therein lies the power of the novel.

For a short novel in which nothing much happens, the subject matter is quite robust. In addition to school shootings, How to be Safe also touches on the institution of education, news cycles, and gender bias. All of the topics face the same harsh but fair scrutiny as the main topic of school shootings. All of them provide the same, must-read-again sentences that have you nodding and highlighting and copying for future pondering.

How to be Safe is not going to be a popular novel; there is not enough there for most readers to be able to understand it let alone enjoy it. Indeed, it is not the type of novel designed for entertainment purposes. Instead, it is the type of novel meant to shock the status quo. It makes you sit up and notice the absurd before it becomes a reality. It forces you to question current events and the road down which we seem to be traveling. While this makes it more of a critical darling and less a best seller, it is still the type of novel more people should read than not. It is profound and disruptive and important, something we need now more than ever in this era of The Onion headlines turned real.

4 Responses to How a story with little plot can be so profound
  1. Kay
    May 10, 2018 | 5:53 AM

    I saw something about this book recently and had wondered about it. Good to read your thoughts. Yes, we indeed live in the land of extremes these days. I’ll watch out for this one and keep in mind what you’ve said about it.

    • Michelle
      May 10, 2018 | 10:40 AM

      I hope you enjoy it if you get around to reading it!

  2. Ti
    May 10, 2018 | 12:20 PM

    Do you think the novel was written with that intent? To not be heavy on plot but to focus on shock factor?

    • Michelle
      May 10, 2018 | 2:06 PM

      I think the intent was to open a dialogue or at the very least get people thinking about the ridiculousness of the gun proponent lobbyists and their arguments after every shooting tragedy.

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