Instantly gripping, The Taking of Jake Livingston is an impressive YA horror debut with its biting social commentary and nightmare fuel inducing ghouls. I devoured this book in one sitting and am honestly still reeling.
"I'd hate to be that kid who died in PE class. Steven Woodbead never saw it coming. He was doing a body roll."
The fast-paced narrative carries a levity that embodies sixteen-year-old Jake Livingston's personality. Douglass nails the teen voice and Jake feels like a real person. But there's also a loneliness tinged into the narrative as a queer Black kid in a predominantly white school. His one friend is more of an annoyance he can't get rid of (and honestly kind of terrible) and he feels he can't measure up to his older brother. When he finds his people? *chef's kiss* Each character, regardless of page time, is fully fleshed out and made me feel an array of emotions.
The prep school setting mirrors the supernatural horror that Jake experiences with the social horrors that Black people experience, particularly in white dominated settings. As the only Black kid in the 11th grade until Allister enrolls, Jake is bullied and experiences blatant racism which largely goes unchallenged by everyone but him. There are people who don't agree but their silence helps to feed and reinforce the racist ideals that the institution upholds.
One thing that I really appreciate is that at its heart, The Taking of Jake Livingston is a ghost story. It doesn't go too deep into the social commentary, but it's carefully woven into the story and there if the reader wants to think about it. Jake's life is all about a lack of control and the "taking" (possession) is another aspect of being controlled. This book is full of spooking moments and beautifully written lines.
"I know he's behind me, but my reflection doesn't. I can only feel him - a tickle at the back of my neck, a crinkle down my spine, like the tip of a finger tracing my body."
The supernatural horror is chilling. Unease drifts from the pages whenever the ecto-mist appears. The book opens with an introduction to the spirit world Jake sees with body rolling Steven, almost lulling you into a sense of security with its mundane nature. Don't let that fool you, we've got gore aplenty. If you're squeamish at all with vivid descriptions of nightmare fuel, be sure to read this book in the daylight.
The book also explores the failures of the mental health system. It was a risk to include Sawyer's journal entries and some people may feel this perspective humanizes a school shooter, but I think Douglass does a good job giving a backstory and reason for Sawyer's actions while not justifying what he did. It's a critique on the system that upholds the second amendment without limits, a system which demonizes the mentally ill while not providing support. Sawyer's diary chapters are sad and tragic.
Overall, The Taking of Jake Livingston is an impressive social thriller that juxtaposes the supernatural horrors with the horrors and monsters within humanity and how those monsters are reinforced by the (white) systems of power. It's a haunting ghost story of control and one I definitely recommend.
Content warnings: abuse, attempted rape of a minor, blood, bullying, gore, gun violence, homophobia, microaggressions, murder, racism, school shooting, suicide
Representation: Black main character, gay main character
ARC sent by the publisher via BookishFirst for my honest review. This has not affected my opinion nor content of my review. Quotations are from an unfinished proof and are subject to change upon final publication.