A Thousand Cuts
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When introverted history teacher Samuel Szajkowski opens fire in a school assembly, killing four people before shooting himself, the police assume that they have an easy case—after all, there are plenty of eyewitnesses and the perpetrator was found dead at the scene. But Lucia May, a young female detective in an otherwise all-male police force, is convinced there is more to this tragedy than first appears. A Thousand Cuts, a gripping and taut debut novel from Simon Lelic, follows Lucia’s journey to understand Szajkowski and the events that drove him to commit such a shocking crime.
With her boss pressuring her to close the case, Lucia begins to explore Szajkowski’s past. Interviewing those who knew him, she begins to piece together the steps toward his mental breakdown and develops a nuanced—even compassionate—view of the teacher. Rather than a crackpot shooter, Szajkowski was a good man worn down by merciless bullying; from the sneering condescension of fellow faculty to the graphic and grotesque attacks by his students, Szajkowski endured petty cruelties daily. Lelic’s portrait of Szajkowski’s psychological suffering is skillfully drawn and disturbing in its authenticity, keen in its understanding of the desperate loneliness of being isolated and abused by one’s community. But Lucia is no stranger to intimidation, either; she struggles against the rampant sexism and harassment in her department, and even fights off a vicious attack by a colleague in an empty parking lot. Lucia is a determined, resilient heroine, one who is intellectually astute and emotionally complex, with a finely tuned moral sense that allows her to sympathize with Szajkowski without condoning his actions.
Blending a traditional narrative with multiple first-person perspectives, Lelic alternates between the details of Lucia’s investigation and interviews with eyewitnesses. Together, these strands present a multifaceted portrayal of cruelty, cowardice and guilt. The novel is riveting and profound, and it dissects a horrifying crime with lucidity and precision. Lelic challenges conventional responses to tragedy and, in Lucia, offers a heroine who finds her strength in discovering the vulnerability of another. A Thousand Cuts begins with a crime and ends with a question as Lelic examines the slow destruction of a man’s emotional well-being and asks whether his community, in pushing him toward violence, is responsible for his crime.
- As the only woman in her department, Lucia May suffers a great deal of harassment and belittling. Is this treatment typical for women in male-dominated professions? Do men in female-dominated professions suffer from the same pressures? Why?
- “Why was the onus always on the weak when it was the strong who had the liberty to act? Why were the weak obliged to be so brave when the strong had license to behave like such cowards?” (p.189). What does Lelic mean? How is this demonstrated in the novel?
- Have you ever been the subject of bullying, as a child or as an adult? How did you respond? Have you ever bullied anyone else?
- What parallels exist between Szajkowski, Elliot and Lucia? How do their reactions to their situations differ?
- Do you feel any sympathy for Szajkowski? Why?
- Whether victims or perpetrators, many of the characters face situations in which they could have taken action against bullying, peer pressure or harassment. Identify three characters and explain how they could have handled their situations differently.
- What was your response to the book’s narrative structure? Which of the character interviews did you find most engrossing?
- Do you agree that because of their tolerance for bullying, the school community is partly responsible for Szajkowski’s actions? For Elliot’s actions? Is there a difference between the two?
- What was the most challenging aspect of this book for you? What do you believe is the book’s purpose? Was it successful?
- If this book was a film, who would you cast in the lead roles? How would you adapt the novel’s structure?
- Discuss your response to the closing scene of the book. Did it confirm or conflict with your expectations?