I recently read What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler, a young adult novel published under the HarperTeen imprint of HarperCollins Publishers in 2015. I’d seen this book months ago and been drawn to it, but for whatever reason on the day (quite possibly the rather mundane one that I’d maxed out my book budget already that month) I didn’t buy it. I also neglected to make a note of the exact title or author, and when I went on the hunt for it some weeks later, all I could remember was it had the word ‘Saw’ in the title. And of course, it was nowhere to be found.
So when I did come across it again, I was determined not to leave it behind a second time. The photo that accompanies this post is of the actual book I bought from a local Big W.
I started reading What We Saw when I got home that afternoon. Apart from a few short interludes (feed the dog, talk to my husband, check in on Twitter) I kept reading until I got to the end. It’s here I need to make full disclosure: I suspect another reason I may have left that book languishing unbought on a book shelf when I first came across it is the fear that the author would not deliver a satisfying payoff on the premise. I am pleased to report, that fear has proven unfounded.
It’s always difficult to talk about a book that has a ‘reveal’, or a strategic unrolling of key developments because you really don’t want to give it away to anyone eager to read the story and make that discovery for themselves. I shall tread carefully, accordingly.
In What We Saw, the main character and narrator is Kate, a 17-year-old girl whose rekindled relationship with a childhood friend, Ben, seems to be transforming into romance. This is, naturally, foremost in her thoughts when she wakes up incredibly hungover from a party held by one of her classmates the previous night. Fortunately for Kate, Ben has seen her safely home after she downed too many shots and got drunk, and apart from an unflattering photo on social media that’s quickly deleted by the BFF who took it on her phone, Kate has escaped with nothing worse than a headache. She soon learns that Stacey, the girl she was doing shots with the night before, has suffered more lasting damage to her reputation, and possibly something even more damaging.
The question of whether Stacey - a girl with a bad reputation, from a poor part of town - was raped by four stars of the basketball team as she claims, or whether she participated willingly, at least until she sobered up to regret it the next morning, soon divides Kate’s friends, the other students at the high school and the town itself. Rumours circulate of a video posted online that proves – one way or another – what really happened, and despite almost everyone in Kate’s life advising her to leave it alone, Kate feels a growing need to find out who is telling the truth.
Aaron Hartzler is a terrific writer, crafting realistic, relatable teenage characters who draw us through a compelling narrative. They aren’t always perfect, they don’t always do the smart thing, but that just adds credibility. As a reader you care what happens to them, and of course you hope for an answer to what really happened on that night.
What We Saw explores some contemporary and at times confronting territory with a deft touch, including social media use, rape culture and the thoughtless egotism of young adults. There is an excellent scene where Kate calls out her younger brother for adding a hashtag associated with the party to one of his tweets when he doesn’t know what it means (and tellingly, neither does Kate). The author also turns a spotlight on some damaging assumptions that teens may make about consent and personal responsibility.
This novel truly is contemporary, effortlessly incorporating the ubiquitous presence of camera-equipped smart phones and social media access just a swipe away as an everyday part of the life of the modern teenager. The high school students in the novel treat their phones and their online activity as casually and comfortably as a toothbrush, and so does the author.
There’s nothing new in teenagers throwing parties when their parents are out of town, and engaging in risky behaviours including under-age drinking and sexual activity, either in fiction or in reality. Now that we live in the age of digital technology and social media, how much is that changing the way teenagers see themselves and each other? Is it altering their perceptions about actions and consequences? While online profiles and social media allow people to hide their real identify, is this potentially leading people into the trap of thinking how you behave – online or for real – doesn’t matter?
These and more are the kind of questions this novel will leave you with. I define a great book as one that stays with you after the last page; one that makes you think or even invades your dreams. What We Saw is still with me, and I recommend it to you.
The reproduction of the cover artwork for What We Saw (Copyright HarperCollins Publishers) is permitted under Fair Dealing usage for the purpose of review.
I'm a writer. I love words and story. I'm also rather fond of my husband and my dog.