Every Last Promise by Kristin Halbrook is realist fiction set in small-town America. Kayla, the main protagonist, is one of four teenage best friends. Jen, Selena and Bean are her three closest friends. Kayla loves her hometown and doesn’t want to leave it to go to a college elsewhere. But an incident during a party leads to an accident that she is held accountable for, and everything she has known and loved is irrevocably changed.
After a summer away at her Aunts, she comes back and has to face an ongoing moral dilemma; whether to reveal what really happened that night, or whether to live with keeping it secret. Neither choice seems simple or easy to contend with. The plot explores the complexity of Kayla’s situation, the pros and cons of a tight-knit community and the fear and guilt that crime victims (and witnesses) can feel. By placing Kayla in a small town, where everyone knows one other, the effect of her secret and the moral dilemma she faces is amplified.
This narrative is well written and runs in two concurrent threads. One thread introduces Kayla before the party, in the spring term, and sets up her love of her friends and the community and life around her. It then switches to the fall (autumn) term, when she is returning to school and home after a summer away. The difference between the two threads is really effective in building up the tension.
Written in the first person throughout, with Kayla as the before and after voice, gives her character depth and builds up what is at stake for her. There is such a contrast between how people treat her and how she feels each term, that readers are drawn into the question what exactly did happen that night? I wondered if this approach would frustrate me or turn out to be full of cliché clues, but as it developed I think Halbrook was right to withhold it until further on. The spring chapters gradually lead up to the incident and the fall builds up the emotional aftermath until the two converge to reveal what happened. This made the revelation all the more effective and gave it more emotional impact. But the revelation isn’t the end, it does go further.
Never having been a girly-girl type myself, I wasn’t sure if I’d like this novel during the opening chapter, feeling uncomfortable with references to cheerleading and girls painting their nails, but I pushed my adult English thoughts aside. I’m glad I did. The second chapter and the contrast in the narrative voice had me hooked. I wanted to know what had happened that night. But this isn’t just about an incident, it covers many aspects of the dilemma’s that can go hand in hand with being/knowing a victim and doesn’t shy away from reality.
This novel approaches a hard-hitting topic (sexual assault) in a plausible, sensitive way. It’s powerful and empowering. It doesn’t hold back, yet it isn’t overly graphic. It doesn’t need to be. This story takes you on an emotional journey that asks questions and raises awareness and understanding. But then, that’s what this book is all about. After reading this, Kristin Halbrook certainly has my respect.