Book Review: What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler

what we sawA brilliantly-written exploration of high school sporting rape culture.

This was a difficult read – not in terms of the writing or style, but simply in terms of the subject matter. I’m glad that rape culture is being explored and dissected in contemporary YA books – I think Courtney Summers’ All The Rage is the most high profile release on this topic for 2015 – but it’s also subject matter that elicits (at least for me) intense feelings of despair, hopelessness, anger, and revulsion. The fact that it’s so necessary to tackle rape culture is damning in and of itself. 

The setting echoes so many of the stories of this sort that we’ve heard on the news – a small town, high school athletes who come from good families, boys with bright futures ahead of them, boys who are the pride of their town – and a girl who was inebriated, dressed inappropriately, known for promiscuous behaviour. At least, that’s how the mainstream narrative portrays it.

The book is told from the perspective of Kate, who attended the party at which the assault happened but left early because she got drunk rather swiftly on in the evening. Her childhood best friend, Ben, who later becomes her boyfriend, drives her home, but then returns to the party. Once the allegations have emerged, Kate can’t shake the feeling that Ben is lying about where he was when the attack took place. News crews descend on the town, rumours fly, and battle lines are drawn.

We’re a mob and we are circling the wagons to protect our own.

The effect of social media is also examined closely in the story – indeed, it shows the magnifying force of Facebook and the like when it comes to matters like this, particularly in shaming the victim. Photos and a video of the assault are circulated online, vile comments are shared – hell, the party even generates its own horrifying hashtag. (On the flip side, this all means that evidence which may help in prosecuting the crime is now widely available.)

But it certainly takes a long, hard look at bystander behaviour. Someone had to take those photos, and film the rape of an unconscious teenage girl – indeed, several someones. And they all thought it was okay, it was funny, she deserved it, or just didn’t care. Nobody intervened. And while this particular story may be fiction, we’ve seen too many examples of bystander behaviour in real life.

‘Boys will be boys’ is what people say to excuse guys when they do something awful.

Through the perspective of Kate, who finds that she can’t stop asking questions – which eventually leads her to discover the ugly truth – the author skillfully criticizes the permissiveness of society that enables rape culture. And ultimately, Kate becomes a social pariah and stands alone in her defence of the victim – at least, in terms of her high school peers.

One other message I really appreciated in the book was that love does not conquer all, in terms of the relationship between Kate and Ben. When she finally finds out the truth, she cannot overlook Ben’s actions or lack thereof. While people like to draw lines between girls like Kate, and girls like the victim Stacey, Kate knows better. It’s not what you wore, or how much you had to drink, or your sexual history. It could have been her.

Apart from its dissection of rape culture, What We Saw also takes a powerful look at notions of consent, of very selective media narratives, and of the fallout when the furor dies down.

“Why does everybody say ‘feminist’ that way?”

“What way?”

“The way Dooney kept saying ‘herpes’ after health class last year. Like it’s this terrible, unspeakable thing.”


Rating: 8/10

ARC received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication. 

Hannah is a twenty-something born and bred Capetonian who adores reading and reviewing books, and encouraging critical discussion on all things pop culture. Currently a politics graduate student, she spent two years working in digital marketing before deciding she missed the student life. Loves QI, travel, dark chocolate, fantasy & YA books, pilates and sarcasm.