Friday, 17 August 2012

You Against Me, by Jenny Downham

You Against MeYou Against Me is the story of Mikey and Ellie. Mikey’s fifteen year old sister, Karyn, has been raped, or so she claims. The perpetrator? Ellie’s brother, Tom - but he says he’s innocent. When Mikey goes round to confront Tom, Ellie answers the door. It’s not love at first sight, but Mikey figures if he gets to know her, he might learn something useful that can help his sister. But Ellie quickly draws him into her world and things become complicated: what will happen when Ellie finds out who he is? What will happen when Mikey’s sister finds out who he’s dating? And, most importantly, who is telling the truth?

This is a difficult and sensitive subject well tackled by author Jenny Downham. By writing from the perspectives of Mikey and Ellie, who are involved but are on the sidelines, rather than the two people to whom the event in question actually occurred, it enables Downham to take half a step back from the rape itself, creating an additional story outside of it and thus preventing the book from becoming too overbearing. It’s also a very clever method of story construction because, like the two characters we are hearing from, until a certain point in the story, I could not be entirely sure who was telling the truth. I started off absolutely certain that Karyn was telling the truth, but once I met Ellie and saw her brother through her eyes, doubt crept in. Downham kept me questioning for about half the book, at which point she introduced some changes that made it clearer what the truth was, which then made me question whether or not that person would come forward with the real story. Outcome? I spent the whole book on tenterhooks.

Overall, I found You Against Me quite compulsive, with very well constructed characters who got into my head to the point that, when I put the book down, I kept thinking about them and their story until I could pick the book up again. I think the most outstanding thing, though, is the fact that Downham very subtly raises an incredibly important set of moral questions around both rape and feminist issues. Is a girl ‘asking for it’ if she wears ‘slutty’ clothes? What about if she kisses a guy and then says no to sex? Does that make her a tease? If someone goes out with several different people in a short time, why does that make a girl a slut or a slag, but a boy just a player or a ladies man? Is it ok to get someone really drunk so they’ll agree to have sex with you? Or, is it ok to sleep with someone when they are really drunk, even if they seem up for it? Because they’re not really capable of giving informed consent, is that simply taking advantage or is it rape?

These are a million questions teenagers and adults alike bandy around. Just because something is accepted as the social norm, does that make it right? What Jenny Downham has done - extremely successfully - is to somehow make the reader think about these issues, but without specifically naming them; instead of stating the questions specifically they kind of work their way into the story through some sort of word-based osmosis. She got me to think about it without preaching about it. This is exactly what good ‘issues’ fiction should do, especially when it comes to teenagers: they’re more likely to take serious thought about it after reading the ideas in this manner, than if they were presented by rote in a classroom. ‘Show not tell’ at its best.

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