Reading Ellen Hopkins’ latest novel, People Kill People, was like watching a car crash in slow motion.
Born out of the social dichotomy of Trump-era nationalism, People Kill People weaves the lives of six Tucson, Arizona teens together, after one purchases a gun (the seventh character?), to a devastating conclusion. Stitching this tapestry together is Hopkins’ choice of narrator, giving voice to the basest aspects of humanity: our fear and self-doubt. Hopkins uses this ‘devil on your shoulder’ voice brilliantly not only to tap into our own fears and insecurities, but to actually humanize the extreme views and perspectives of her characters. In making the reader see the dark side in themselves, Hopkins forces the audience to empathize with even the most unlikeable of characters by illuminating how circumstances, uncertainty and emotion sometimes simply seem to make our decisions for us, leaving the characters and the reader feeling pulled along an unavoidable collision course with tragedy.
Apart from wonderfully writing her character vignettes, the novel belongs to this demonic presence that uses such subtle but menacing language and tone to slip under your skin. People Kill People pulls no punches and uses mature language and content to grapple with the complexities of the characters’ lives: mental health, suicide, teen parentage, family dynamics, racism, drug use, and friendship. Stylistically, Hopkins employs two other useful techniques; each character has their own font, and the demon-puppet-master-narrator inserts itself via italics within the vignettes, providing colour and context through short poetic intermissions as the mood and plot of the novel intensifies.
For such an emotionally difficult read, it is highly engaging and hard to pull away from. Many students will see something of themselves or someone they know in the novel, but the mature language and themes, as well as some more complex vocabulary, particularly in the poetic structure, may make it a challenging read for some.
Will Milner is an English & Outdoor Pursuits teacher at Fredericton High School, where he also coaches soccer and track & field. When not teaching, or coaching, he can be found with his wife Jen outside with their dogs and playing with their daughter Olivia.