Warning: this book/review contains reference to rape, sexual assault and assault that some may find distressing.
Title: You Against Me
Author: Jenny Downham
Published by: David Fickling Books
Publication date: 2nd December 2010
Pages: 413, hardcover
Genres: Young Adult
‘If someone hurts your sister and you’re any kind of man, you seek revenge, right?
If your brother’s accused of a terrible crime but says he didn’t do it, you defend him, don’t you?’
When Mikey’s sister claims a boy assaulted her, his world begins to fall apart.
When Ellie’s brother is charged with the offence, her world begins to unravel.
When Mikey and Ellie meet, two worlds collide.
This is a brave and unflinching novel from the bestselling author of Before I Die. It’s a book about loyalty and the choices that come with it. But above all it’s a book about love.
I’m standing in Waterstones, eyeing up the beautiful rows of teen fiction novels (I’m sure you can all relate). And yes (regrettably) I am the kind of person who will pick up a book if it has a nice cover. So I see a book that has the black-and-red-and-hearts aesthetic going on, think oh that’s cute, and pick it up. Then, I see that it was written by Jenny Downham, author of Before I Die, and that’s another tick in the box for me, because I really enjoyed that book when I read it a few years ago. Reading the blurb, I deliberated about buying it: it looked like a story that had some underlying important themes, but was mainly a cute romance. Staring down into my pityingly empty purse (cleaned out by other trips to Waterstones), I made my decision.
On my way home, with a copy of You Against Me tucked away in my bag, I thought to myself: I’m looking forward to reading this – it looks like a cute, relatively relaxing read.
I was wrong.
Yes, there was an enjoyable, gritty romance between Mikey and Ellie, that had me peeking between my fingers to read the pages whenever things got angst-y, but that’s not what I loved about this book. Honestly, at times I felt that their love was unrealistic, and even a little irrelevant.
Love story aside, this is a book about rape, and misogyny, and so many other important issues. And it got me so fired up. Seriously. Karen, the rape victim, is completely maligned by Tom (the teenage boy accused of assaulting her), his family, and even Ellie at the beginning of the novel. Their attitude towards her is completely toxic, and the way Jenny writes this makes it impossible to overlook.
Arguably even worse, Mikey also mistreats Karen, though unintentionally. Although he is outraged at what has been done to his sister, he fails to support her emotionally throughout the novel. In fact, at some points, he even seems to blame her. Rather than helping Karen cope with her trauma, he just wanted the problem to go away. And it just made me so angry that the dynamic between families in this situation is so appalling.
Don’t even get me started on the misogyny. Ellie’s parents are constantly putting her down, whilst glorifying Tom, and as the story unfolds, you can see this bias twist into the extreme.
It’s not every day that you read a book that causes you to spend the next week starting heated discussions with any of your friends who will listen about the infuriating prejudices in the world.
I met Jenny Downham at YA Shot a week or so ago (and yes, I was very excited), and when I presented her with my copy of You Against Me, she told me that she thought of it almost as her unloved second child. And I think I know why: YA novels at the moment are brilliant in the way that they focus on topical issues, including slut-shaming and rape (think Asking For It by Louise O’Neill). But Jenny was about five years to early with You Against Me. Honestly, it makes me a little sad, because if this book had been published in the past year or so, it would’ve been widely celebrated for its powerful message, rather than pushed aside in favour of the latest paranormal romance.
Overall, this book deserves way more attention that it got when it was published in 2010, and I would completely recommend it, not just for the strong but sweet romance between Mikey and Ellie, but for the extremely important themes emphasised throughout the book that will leave you an emotional wreck by the final page.