Book Review: You Against Me by Jenny Downham
‘If someone hurts your sister and you’re any kind of man, you seek revenge, right? If your brother’s been accused of a terrible crime and you’re the main witness, then you banish all doubt and defend him. Isn’t that what families do? When Mikey’s sister claims a boy assaulted her at a party, his world of work and girls begins to fall apart. When Ellie’s brother is charged with the crime, but says he didn’t do it, her world of revision, exams and fitting in at a new school begins to unravel. When Mikey and Ellie meet, two worlds collide. Brave and unflinching, this is a novel of extraordinary skillfulness and almost unbearable tension. It’s a book about loyalty and the choices that come with it. But above all it’s a book about love.’
You Against Me is a powerful and moving story. I’ve been wanting to read this for ages and I’m very glad I finally did.
I went into this not knowing very much about it — and I think that is probably best for a book like this. You don’t need to know much more than is on the cover. As it’s almost impossible to write a review about You Against Me without giving too much away, I’m going to keep this one relatively short.
You Against Me is very much a character driven book — and Downham’s characters, every single one, are exceptionally well written. This isn’t a romance, but it is about love. Yes — Mikey and Ellie are drawn to one another and we see their relationship evolve throughout the story, but that isn’t what You Against Me is primarily about. You Against Me is about an alleged sexual assault. One person’s word against another. And the devastating effects on not only the victim and their family, but also on the accused family — a point of view we rarely consider, or hear much about. In situations such as this, no one tends to care very much, if at all, of the impact of an allegation on the accuser’s family and how they are left to cope with the aftermath. Downham shows us how both families are completely torn apart.
The narration is simple yet powerful. I was quickly caught up in the book and my emotions were all over the place while reading. I felt revulsion, fear, anger, pity, compassion, and not necessarily for the characters you would expect either. That is where You Against Me shines, there is no outright evil villain here to hate. Even characters whose actions were utterly deplorable, I still found myself moved for them at some point during the book (well — except perhaps one, and no, it wasn’t the accused).
You Against Me cleverly keeps the reader guessing as to who exactly is telling the truth for a good portion of the book — though the clues are there for those who see them. Downham tackles many of the pre-conceptions, attitudes, and excuses surrounding rape. ‘Why didn’t she immediately report it to the police? Why didn’t she fight him off?’ (As if it only counts as rape if the woman is beaten beyond recognition) ‘She was dressed in revealing clothes and was drinking too much. She was asking for it.’. As if a young woman showing any signs of sexuality means it is her fault if she assaulted. ‘She should get over it already’ — when a victim of sexual assault doesn’t immediately recover within a few weeks. Sadly, these reactions are all to common-place in the real world. Too often there is a blame the victim mentality when it comes to rape. Downham explores all these attitudes and more — but never is it more forcefully highlighted than through Ellie’s father. Or when it is made abundantly clear that two characters, because of their sex, will be made out to be liars and sluts in court to discredit their statements. Somehow I very much doubt the accuser’s character and integrity will be judged based on his gender and sexual history.
I won’t go into detail about individual characters, except to say that while all were well-fleshed out, Ellie was probably the most complex; and how I felt about her altered drastically back and forth throughout the story. Perhaps strangely, the character I loved the most was actually her mother, who displays a true courage and strength.
Downham is to be applauded for tackling such a difficult subject and doing so in an insightful, honest and respectful way. You Against Me gives an in-depth and uncomfortable examination into rape and the devastation it causes not just to the victim but to the families involved. It’s a little slow to begin with, but really comes into its own in the second half. Some readers will have a problem with the ending. It is a little abrupt and in some ways unsatisfying — though I can see why Downham has left it as she has. The ultimate outcome of the court case is, in many ways, irrelevant and I personally think it’s obvious which way it’s going to go anyway. Instead, Downham leaves us to draw our own conclusions and provides a different sort of closure — one more to do with the growth of the characters and their own acceptance (or not, as the case may be) with everything that has happened.
This won’t be the right kind of novel for everyone, but don’t let the subject matter turn you away from picking up this book — despite its dark moments it is never melodramatic or emotionally manipulative. You Against Me manages to be both an absorbing, poignant read while conveying some important messages. One that deserves reading.
‘You want this to be a love story?”
~ page 144
Recommended Reading Age: 16+