If We Had Known
Elise Juska
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Buy *If We Had Known* by Elise Juskaonline

If We Had Known
Elise Juska
Grand Central Publishing
320 pages
April 2018
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Juska's timely tale begins with an all-too-common event: a mass shooting in a local mall in rural Maine, three people killed and one badly injured, the shooter then taking his own life. Nathan Dugan, a fifth-year senior, has planned his murderous rampage, packing the duffle bag he carries with weapons, using an AR-15 to mow down unsuspecting victims. Like others before them, this quiet town is stunned, high school students in shock, parents flocking to the popular Mill View Mall. There the emergency lights of ambulances and police cars lend an eerie glow, violent death leaving an indelible mark on another community.

Why the shooting and why it happens form the crux of the novel, the collateral damage exposed in the glare of cameras seeking stories for greedy news stations. The long tentacles of curiosity spread through the small community, focused on the killer, his mother, even a teacher who taught composition to the troubled teen. The boy's mother hides inside a darkened living room, the school dean anxiously puts together a statement to calm both students and parents. Like a sleeping giant, social media explodes, searching for responses, secrets, suspicions and fear-tinged gossip, a wrecking ball spewing outrage, hungry for more, the uglier the better. This inhuman barometer offers a banquet of details and opinions, valid or not, an eyewitness account, a moment of fame. Everything is caught and replayed in real time, discarding nuance or reflection.

Maggie Daley, the English professor who teaches the required comp class, remembers troubled Nathan and the essay he turned in, a copy of that essay stored in a cluttered garage with the rest of her teacher's detritus. Maggie wonders if she should offer the essay to the dean, but she is distracted with the need to get her daughter off to college. After the unsettling divorce between Maggie and her husband, Tom, Anna has been out of sorts, anxious about her new life on campus. Maggie jumps between concern for Anna and a mordant curiosity about Nathan--more specifically his mother, Marielle, left with an empty house and an infamous dead son. For reasons she can't explain, Maggie drives by the mother's house, shocked by the numbers of news cameras and jostling reporters looking for a tip. Even though there aren't enough dead bodies to warrant extended national coverage, there is excitement in the air, a breach of the usual small-town quietude.

Juska captures it all, moving from one character to another, the cumulative perspective forming a backdrop as people react to the tragedy. Anna stays in her room, concentrating on her packing, while a high-school boy named Luke tries to make sense of the future, the still-married Robert sneaks in a call to Maggie, his so-called estranged wife well aware of her husband's infidelity. Maggie finds solace on campus in an unplanned conference with the dean, Bill Wall. He asks about Dugan's essay, if there were any hints of trouble in the essay. Having located and reread it, Maggie remembers Nathan's constant mention of guns, of hunting. She wonders if she should have paid more attention.

The mall slaughter becomes another episode of mass gun violence, the slaughter of innocents afflicting the country like a plague. The aftermath of sudden death leaves grieving families, the fringe-dwellers moving on with private pursuits, parents a little more thoughtful, children fearful of the unknown. Maggie is a temporary subject of scorn, a failed teacher, wife, caretaker of a troubled child fallen through the cracks. Life goes on, routines restored, another place wracked by turmoil with fading memories of a shared ordeal. The plague moves on, a too-familiar story caught in the glare for a while.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Luan Gaines, 2018

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