Sixty seconds. Seven floors. Three rules. One gun. Will's older brother, Shawn, has been shot. Dead. Will feels a sadness so great, he can't explain it. But in his neighbourhood there are THE RULES:
Crying. Don't. No matter what.
Snitching. Don't. No matter what.
Revenge. Do. No matter what.
I've heard great things about Jason Reynolds and Long Way Down has been on my TBR for ages so when I stumbled across a cheap copy of the US edition a couple of weeks ago I knew I had to buy it. It arrived in the post last week but in the midst of everything going on in the US, I wasn't sure I could stomach yet another story of a Black teen whose life had been taken prematurely as a result of needless violence.
Then I thought about my own privilege and how as a white man, I have the luxury of choosing when to confront these issues. Because for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), there is no opting out of these narratives - they are forced to live them every day.
So I read it. And wow. Have you ever read something so powerful that when you turn the final page you're just left feeling... numb? It's a strange experience and I can probably count on one hand the number of books I've read in my lifetime that have resonated with me in such a way. Long Way Down is one of them.
I think it goes without saying that Jason Reynolds has written an incredible novel here.
And in truth, I'm wasting my time writing this review because words simply can't do it justice. This is one of those books that you need to experience first-hand to really understand the power behind it. But never one to back down from a challenge, I'm going to attempt to explain how brilliant this book is and make the case for why you need to read it.
What's it about?
Long Way Down tells the story of Will Holloman, a fifteen-year-old boy whose brother Shawn is killed in an act of gang violence when he crosses into the Dark Suns territory while out running an errand for his mum. Shawn's family is devastated and while his mother struggles to cope with her grief, Will is overwhelmed by an emotion just as all-consuming: revenge.
Because in Will's neighbourhood there are three rules when it comes to someone you love being murdered:
When I first heard about Long Way Down one of the things that immediately caught my attention was its timeframe: the entire novel takes place in sixty-seven seconds. I was intrigued and - I'll admit it - slightly skeptical. After all, how can you write a whole book based on a single minute? What can happen in such a short space of time?
The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.
Because sixty-seven seconds is the time it takes for Will to decide whether or not he's going to kill the guy who murdered his brother. One minute of pure, unfiltered emotion as Will descends down the elevator of his eighth floor apartment building, gun in his pocket, ready to avenge his brother's death. And it is genius. Let's be clear here, Jason Reynolds knows exactly what he's doing. The claustrophobic elevator combined with the compressed sixty second timeline transforms Long Way Down into a ticking time bomb, ready to detonate at any moment. As the elevator doors close behind Will, the tension is tangible. I can feel myself handling the book more delicately like one wrong move could set the whole thing off. And of course this is exactly how Reynolds wants the reader to react because this is precisely how Will feels. Make no mistake, he might be called Will Holloman but there is nothing hollow about this boy at all. He is bursting with emotion. Anger, pain, sorrow, doubt. And in that single minute, we're experiencing all of it with him.
A modern day, urban Christmas Carol
Will has the whole thing mapped out:
was to wait for Riggs
in front of his building.
I figured it would be safest
if I went in the morning. If I
timed it right, none of his crew
would be out yet. No one
would ever suspect me. I'd hit
his buzzer, get him to come down
and open the door. Then I'd pull my
shirt over my mouth and nose
and do it.
There's just one problem: Will isn't a killer. Not even close. He doesn't get into fights, he's not part of a gang, he's never done drugs. He's certainly never held a gun before. He's just an average fifteen year old kid and these feelings of intense violence and vengeance are entirely new to him. So he really just wants the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. But things aren't going so smoothly for Will. Because with every floor the elevator passes, it grinds to a halt to allow someone new to enter, delaying Will's plan and weakening his resolve with each passing moment.
And this is where things get weird. Because the people who join Will in the elevator aren't residents of neighbouring apartments... they're the ghosts of friends and family Will has lost over the years. And all of their deaths are tied, in some way, to gun violence and The Rules Will finds himself following right now. It's a lot like A Christmas Carol or An Inspector Calls, where spectres appear to teach the main character a lesson of some sort. But what is it they're trying to teach Will? Are they here to help him follow The Rules and exact his revenge? Or are they here to guide him down a different path?
Reynolds is a masterful storyteller and his ability to weave these characters' stories together so effortlessly is remarkable. But the more I read about these characters and their lives, the more I realise that their stories are really just echoes of the same narrative; a loved one is murdered so a friend / family member avenges their death by taking the life of their killer. Except that killer also had friends and family who want justice for their loved one's life being taken. It's an endless cycle of needless violence that goes far beyond the actions of any one individual. And that's the real tragedy of Long Way Down. Because while these deaths are preventable, there's also a degree of inevitability to them. For kids who grow up on the street (especially in lower socio-economic communities), The Rules aren't considered optional - they're a way of life. In an interview, Jason Reynolds explains how "poverty, education and politics - all those things - weigh into this story," and it's true. It's easy to label the teen who pulls the trigger "a thug", "a gangster", "a murderer", but surely the blame must lie with the systems and institutions that led them down a path of violence and put the gun in their hands in the first place? What it ultimately comes down to is systemic racism and structural inequality. For young Black men living in poverty whose circumstances mean they are often denied access to proper schooling and paid employment, many turn to violence and gangs as a way of asserting their masculinity and gaining respect. I could write an entire essay on this topic but as this is a book review and not a dissertation, I'll leave it at that. But if you want to learn more about systemic racism and structural inequality, this short video explains it in a really simple way:
I'm not a big fan of poetry so this was the one reservation I had about Long Way Down. But from the opening page Reynolds had me gripped, and it's easy to understand why he chose to tell this story through free verse. I think my issue with poetry is how flowery and abstract it can be, but with Reynolds' poetry there's a directness that really cuts to the heart of what this story is about. Through verse, the reader is able to experience the same sense of urgency and panic that Will feels as they flick through the pages and the seconds count down. It's an immediacy that simply isn't possible with prose.
The other thing I loved about Reynolds' style, though I hadn't really picked up on it until I heard him talking about it in an interview, is the way verse is used to mirror Will's mental state:
"Anybody who's been through trauma knows that the brain is not working in complete sentences. It's working in words, it's working in codes. Snapshots. Synapses firing off. That's what it feels like. The brain isn't weaving these beautiful, flowery sentences in the midst of terrible emotional pain and psychosis. And so I wanted to figure out how to put the brain on the page, put a traumatised psyche on the page, and it was easier for me to do so using verse." - Jason Reynolds (interview with The Kennedy Center)
You'd be forgiven for thinking that a book like Long Way Down, which can be read in a matter of hours, might lack the finesse of a 300 page novel but this is definitely one of those situations where less = more. Reynolds' poetry is so meticulously considered, with
individual words taking on multiple meanings, some of which only become apparent upon reflection after finishing the book. Even the placement of the words on the page are important and contribute to the storytelling. But despite the artistry behind the language, the poetry is always accessible - and rightly so. Even the most reluctant reader will find Long Way Down a breeze, and this is crucial because the conversations taking place in this book need to be heard by as many people as possible.
And while I'll freely admit I'm not a poetry buff, even I will admit that some of the language in this novel is truly breathtaking. On more than one occasion I found myself taking pictures of verses on my phone because they were just so moving. I now have a whole album filled with quotes that I've found myself revisiting in the days since I finished reading Long Way Down. I think the one that stood out most was this one:
"Shawn was zipped into a bag
and rolled away, his blood added
to the pavement galaxy of
bubblegum stars. The tape
framed it like it was art. And the next
day, kids would play mummy with it."
Jason Reynolds has produced a masterpiece in Long Way Down that resonates with me in a way very few books have. My love for this book is bittersweet, as while I applaud Reynolds' for his powerful words and authentic voice, I'm reminded of the fact that Will's story is one felt by so many who have suffered similar heartbreak. With the whole world united in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it's important that we look closely and learn from stories like Long Way Down and the real life tragedies that inspire them, no matter how uncomfortable they might be. Reading is not the answer, but it is a starting point. What's important is that these discussions move beyond the page. Now more than ever, we need to be proactive in the fight for equality. The time to be quietly non-racist has past. Now is the time to be actively anti-racist. If we want real change, then we must amplify Black voices and learn from their lived experiences. As white people, we need to listen - really listen - and do everything in our power to become lifelong allies. There is much work to be done, but you can start right now by signing petitions and donating funds to charities, organisations and Black businesses that need your support. And once you've done that, continue to educate yourself because this doesn't go away once the hashtags stop trending. As I said before, reading is not the solution, but it is a good starting point. Here are a few curated lists featuring some brilliant books. I'd encourage you to read as many as you can, and pass them on when you're finished:
Queer YA Black Voices (2020) from YA Pride (check out their blog for other Black Authored LGBTQ+ lists)
Black Stories Matter from Seven Stories (focusing on children's books ranging from picture books to YA)
Read Against Racism: An Essential Book List from Waterstones (focusing on non-fiction and adult fiction)
Black History Month Reading List from Waterstones (a comprehensive selection covering ALL ages and genres)
With commitment, unity and perseverance maybe one day we can reach a point where stories like Long Way Down are simply that: stories. We've got a long way to go, but we have to start somewhere.
Have you read any books by Jason Reynolds? What did you think?
Let me know your thoughts as well as any similar book recommendations in the comments below.