________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 14 . . . . December 2, 2011


You Against Me.

Jenny Downham.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2011.
416 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
ISBN 978-0-385-67629-8.

Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4



She buried her face in her knees. He went and sat next to her, stroked her hair, wanted her to know he was sorry.


"Please, Ellie."

"No." She pushed him away. "I'm thinking. Leave me alone."

Above them, the trees were beginning to do their thing. All the leaves looked like mouths about to open.

"I've got Jacko's car," he said. "I could drive us somewhere."

She didn't say anything.

"We could disappear." It was a brilliant idea. The shit would hit the fan later - with Karyn, Mum, just about everyone in fact, and Jacko would be pissed off about the car - but it would make today easier. "We could hide out at your grandparents' place."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"I've got money. We can buy food, loads of it, and go and live there for a while."


"Think about it, Ellie - just until the worst is over."

"Are you insane?" She took her hands away from her face. "It isn't going to be
over, don't you get it? Someone's family's going to be ruined - yours or mine, that's the choice. We can't run away. This is real life, Mikey!"

She sounded like she was talking to a kid, or someone stupid from another planet. He hated that.

Mikey's sister Karyn won't get dressed and refuses to leave their flat after being assaulted at a party. To encourage and support her and also to get revenge, Mikey vows to go after Tom Parker, the teen charged with the assault. He reasons that the best way to find out about Tom and his habits is to get to know Tom's sister Ellie, thus getting Mikey inside the Parker family unit. What Mikey doesn't plan on is Ellie's personality and her unflagging efforts to defend her sibling.

      Downham's characters are multi faceted, believable and intriguing and find themselves pulled together in the somewhat unreal world of police, lawyers and upcoming trials. Understandably, Mikey and Ellie both are loyal to their siblings and make every effort to protect them. What they do not expect is that, rather than merely using one another as sources of information, they begin to fall in love. The novel's title beautifully explains their predicament because, in legal terms, they are on opposing sides and thus are against one another. Yet emotionally, they are strongest when together and so "you against me" might form part of a larger sentiment such as "I feel safest and strongest when I hold you against me."

      The plot of the novel seems straightforward at first, but the personalities involved add many layers. Where does loyalty to one's family begin and end? Does family take precedence over friends, over the truth? The brilliance of Downham's novel lies in these searching questions and the fact that readers finish the book without learning who will testify - and to what - as well as the outcome of the trial. Like real life, the novel has no clear and simple solution. It continually raises questions instead. Ellie is perhaps the best example of this, and, in reading the book, one constantly is faced with the question, "What would I do in the same situation?" Ellie is forced to focus on the fundamental questions of love and loyalty under the spotlight, both real and figurative, of a police investigation.

      Secondary characters add texture and context to the novel. The mother of Karyn and Mikey chooses to opt out of her obligations much of the time and sees the world through an alcoholic haze. Tom and Ellie's father is far wealthier and thus feels that money, in the form of high powered lawyers, and family pride will conquer all. His wife is another character who feels torn since her loyalty to her husband and her son eventually comes into conflict with her loyalty to Ellie. Other supporting characters at school and the pub where Mikey works are equally interesting and add depth and realism to the book.

      Downham sets her novel in an English city not far from the coast, but this has little impact on the telling of the story. Her characters transcend any specific place because they present a universal human drama. Whether the feuding families are the Montagues and Capulets or modern characters from a soap opera or reality show, the message is the same, "Can love survive the strains and stresses placed on it from outside?"

      The novel does not fit easily into a specific genre as it encompasses elements of romance as well as crime fiction. Thus, it will appeal to a variety of readers, both male and female. Jenny Downham's first novel, Before I Die, was nominated for several prizes and won the 2008 Branford Boase Award. You Against Me will undoubtedly follow the same path. Its intriguing characters and exciting plot make it a great read. However, it is the absorbing questions of how one chooses between love and loyalty when they seem to be opposed which lift this novel above more routine young adult fiction and make it stand out far above and beyond the norm.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson is a retired teacher librarian and high school teacher of English and French who lives in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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