Thursday, 2 December 2010
Review: You Against Me by Jenny Downham
I have to confess that when I first heard the premise behind You Against Me, I wondered how Jenny Downham would pull it off. Starcrossed lovers are always a popular subject in YA fiction, and I feared that combining teen romance with the story of an alleged date rape could prove to be a problematic fit. In fact, Downham brings the two threads of her story together in a juxtaposition that draws on themes of loyalty, trust and gender dynamics.
You Against Me picks up the day that Tom Parker returns home on bail, pending trial for the assault of Karyn McKenzie - which he denies. Told in a dual narrative structure, the perspective alternates between Tom's younger sister, Ellie, and Karyn's big brother Mikey. Both are living in a nightmare. Mikey feels compelled to seek revenge, but when he knocks at the door of the Parker home it's Ellie who answers. They've never met before, but gradually they develop a bond that causes them to question their own choices so far. Their sweet and fragile love story unfolds alongside all the heartbreak and confusion leading up to the court case that will determine Tom Parker's guilt or innocence in the eyes of the law. Like a negative image of what's happened between Tom and Karyn, the connection between Mikey and Ellie gradually begins to evolve into a physical relationship founded upon mutual respect.
Naturally, their families are an obstacle to this relationship, but they also face the challenge of reconciling their feelings for each other with their own loyalties. As readers, we don't have an easy angle on the truth about what happened between Karyn and Tom that night, and although our questions are answered sufficiently in the novel's closing pages we spend much of the narrative trying to weigh up the characters' different versions of the truth. We're compelled to confront the ways that our preconceptions about gender, social background and appearances inform our own interpretations of events, just as the characters themselves do. There are no easy answers here, and there can't be a neat and tidy ending for everybody, but somehow we're left feeling that the two lead characters make the right choices - and that is enough.
Among the many hundreds of YA titles published this year, You Against Me is one that stands out as a shining example of ground-breaking, powerful writing. It's sometimes hard to read, simply because it's told so honestly and without any sugar-coating of its painful and difficult subject matter. But it's also smart and sincere and compelling, and I sincerely recommend it. Not to be missed.
Out: 2nd December 2010, UK
Many thanks to Random House UK for providing a review copy of this book.