Jenny Downham(David Fickling Books)

Mikey’s sister is stuck indoors terrified to go outside after she was allegedly assaulted. Ellie’s brother is on bail, charged of her assault. When Mikey decides to take revenge, he decides to turn up at the Parkers’ house looking for Tom. But it is Ellie he meets and everything changes.

This second novel by Jenny Downham is as uncompromising, as hard-hitting and as utterly compelling as Before I Die. The author does not shy away from thorny subjects and here she broaches the subject of rape. But You Against Me is first and foremost a story of contemporary star-crossed lovers. All the odds are against Mikey and Ellie – not only is the history between their siblings making it near impossible for them to be together but they come from such opposite worlds, you’d think they would not stand a chance. If you want some social realism, look no further. The author’s snapshot of British society today is unbelievably accurate, even though one could feel that sometimes it is a bit too caricatural: Ellie’s mum wears Boden, Mikey’s mum wears tracksuits for example – it is not inaccurate, but might a slight generalisation. But sometimes it feels so real, the reader can’t help but cringe at the unfairness of it all, about the fact that the Parkers have everything and more, and the McKenzies so little. But cleverly, we are not left yearning for the Parkers’ way of life. Their life might look perfect with their beautiful house, their nuclear family, their family brunches etc but as the story unfolds the Parkers fall apart, showing some dark undercurrents in the family dynamics, whereas the McKenzies seem to be waking from a stupor.

The writing is hard-hitting and uncompromising and yet there is also real tenderness and warmth in the story. Just like in Before I Die, despite the car-crash of a life put upon the main protagonists, there, amidst all the pain, the violence, the sorrow, Downham manages to write the most beautiful love scenes. In You Against Me, the love scene between Ellie and Mikey is particularly effective and significant as it is exactly the opposite of what most likely happened between their siblings, Karyn and Tom. Both discover love in different ways: Mikey has had numerous meaningless girlfriends, Ellie has little experience and feels fairly unloved at home also. When they get together, sparks fly. I loved Mikey; I think he is probably one of the sweetest boy characters I have ever read about. He is so desperate to look after his family, and reminded me of Lochan from Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden in that way. But his compassion, his surprise at being loved for who he is, particularly in the cottage scene, was close to heart-breaking, especially here:

She said ‘I missed you so much. I’ve been wanting to touch you for days.’
And he was worth something just like that.

The scene at the cottage is wonderfully written. During most of the novel, each chapter focuses on either Mikey or Ellie, via its third-person narrator But in the cottage scene it takes turn between the two, emphasising how present and involved both of them are.

It would be easy to think that the most detestable character would be Tom. After all, he is accused of rape and looks like he is feeling very little in the way of remorse. However, if anything I felt sorry for Tom. Because, in my eyes, the real villain here is Ellie and Tom’s father. Now here is a proper despicable character. There is very little in the book that can be used to redeem him; Tom has always been treated as the blue-eyed boy, the one who can do no wrong, the one who has all the aspirations and a bright future in front of him. You can see why he’d be led to think everything is out for the taking, even girls, even if they don’t want to. Ellie is seen as second-class, nearly as an extension of her mother, here to serve the men and stay at home. I was shocked at his attitude towards Tom’s situation, and his take on the subsequent trial. I have a son, and I love him more than anything, but if I was in a situation that I knew he had done something so fundamentally wrong, I don’t think I could keep defending him, especially at the detriment, of my other, innocent, child.
This is one of the other great themes of this book: loyalty. What is loyalty? How much should we do in the name of loyalty? Should it prevail over the truth? Ellie finds herself having some tough choices to make which challenge her loyalty to the people she loves, and considering they are only teenagers Ellie and Mikey prove to be able to deal with some very tough situations, and make some tough decisions.

You Against Me is a superb novel, written with amazing skill and composure. It is a novel which touches on a lot of very difficult issues, but most of foremost, it is a beautiful, touching love story.

Sent for review by publisher