Thursday, February 2, 2012

You Against Me by Jenny Downham

You Against Me is a visceral and riveting story about two families in crisis and two people who fall in love when really they should hate one another.

Mikey McKenzie's 15 year old sister, Karyn, has been sexually assaulted by Tom Parker. Karyn and her friend Stacey spent part of the evening at Tom's house with his friends. Eventually both Tom and Karyn's friends left, leaving a very drunk Karyn incapacitated. Tom's younger sister, Ellie was the only witness to what actually occurred meaning that it is Tom's word against Karyn's. And Tom has a witness on his side. Or does he?

The novel opens with Mikey forming plans with his best friend, Jacko, to get revenge on Tom for Karyn's assault. But things don't quite goes as planned when he first scouts out the Parker residence and then crashes the Parker bail bash. There he meets Ellie, whom he is attracted to instantly. At first she doesn't know who Mickey nor that his intention is to get "information" on Tom so that he can plan revenge.

Meanwhile Ellie is burdened with the events of that night. Ellie is experiencing serious conflict over helping her brother Tom not go to prison or telling what she saw that night. As a result she begins to act out, skipping school and becoming involved with Mikey. When Ellie does discover who he is, she is furious and attempts to discover what his intentions are. As the pressure on her increases, Ellie's acting out continues to escalate; she leaves home at all hours, does drugs, drinks and continues in a relationship with Mikey.

But in the end, Ellie knows she has to stop ignoring the voice of her conscience. She sees Karyn and understands her pain and when she does that she knows what she must do, even if it means hurting those she loves. She has to tell the truth.

Overall this was an very good book which retained my interest throughout. It is a realistic portrayal of a certain segment of culture in England by British author, Jenny Downham. Her writing captures a snapshot of teen culture in England, effectively portraying themes of class division, as seen through Mikey and Ellie's relationship, as well as justice and honesty. One family seeks truth, the other doesn't care as long as the status quo remains. Both have their own concepts of justice.

The characterization was the strength of this novel. The characters were interesting and very well developed. Mikey was the most likeable character, a young man struggling to keep his family together and pick up the pieces when his mother drinks. Aspiring to be a chef someday, he is kind and loyal. However, at times he seems the typical young male, having few scruples when it comes to moving from one girl to the next. Tom, in contrast, was self-centered and narcissistic, his lack of character often encouraged by his parents who were concerned more about their image than learning the truth about what really happened. Mikey and Karyn's mom was a typical, irresponsible single mother with a substance abuse problem and was a stark contrast to Tom and Ellie's parents who were on top of everything all the time. The character who I would have liked to see more developed was Karyn, who although central to the storyline, was in fact, ended up being more of a background character.

There were several things about this book that didn't work for me. The first was the incredible amount of British colloquialisms that were scattered throughout the novel; for example, "blagged", "prat", "kip" to name a few. Although these words contribute to the British flavour of the novel, as a Canadian reader, I found them frustrating at times.

The second issue I had was more substantial and it dealt with a small part of the plot. When Ellie tells the police that Tom took pictures of Karyn with his cell phone and that she deleted them, they tell her that her statement is uncorroborated and useless because the supporting evidence is lost. But it's not. At least not in North America where everything done with a cell phone is stored in the transmitting towers. Police are often able to access this kind of information as an aid in their investigations.

Overall, You Against Me is an effective and heartrending portrayal of two families struggling to cope with a life changing situation.

Here's a trailer done by Random House Publishers for the book:

Book Details
You Against Me by Jenny Downham
New York: David Fickling Books 2010
413 pp.

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