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You Against Me

Review

You Against Me

Mikey is the eldest son in a family of three. His mother is an alcoholic who disappears for days at a time. His 15-year-old sister, Karyn, is refusing to leave the house. No one seems to be taking responsibility for his youngest sister Holly, who’s eight. After Karyn reports she’s been sexually assaulted, Mikey’s uncertain world becomes more tenuous. Who will hold the family together, now that everything is falling apart? And how can he avenge his sister’s assault when he can’t even get close to the perpetrator?

Ellie is Tom’s younger sister. When Tom is accused of rape, she is the one person who can testify that he is innocent. Her father hires the best lawyer money can buy and insists that “team Parker” stick together as a family. But Ellie has her doubts about what happened the night of the assault, especially when she hears that Karyn isn’t returning to school to take her final exams.

When Mikey crashes the party that “team Parker” is holding to celebrate Tom’s bail, he expects to confront Tom about what happened to Karyn. Instead, he finds himself mixed up with Ellie. Telling himself that Ellie will be the key to access Tom, Mikey cultivates a relationship with Ellie without revealing he is Karyn’s brother. He doesn’t expect to find that Ellie is the last person on the planet he would want to hurt, or to have to defend his feelings for her to his family and friends.

YOU AGAINST ME is about two families who are torn apart by a common crime. Written by Jenny Downham, whose debut BEFORE I DIE was an unflinching look at a teenage girl’s experience with terminal leukemia, her follow-up novel shares a theme of love against impossible circumstances. Mikey and Ellie must choose between their love for each other and the loyalty they have for their families.

“You cursed us,” Mikey’s friend Jacko says when he finds out that Mikey has fallen in love with Ellie. “You changed the rules of the universe when you fell in love with the enemy.” While their relationship echoes aspects of another pair of star-crossed lovers, this is not a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet. Nor does Downham focus on the relationship between Mikey and Ellie at the expense of the rest of the novel. One of her strengths as a novelist is her ability to give her adolescent characters context, an intricate community in which there are many stakeholders in a particular conflict. YOU AGAINST ME is populated not just with friends and family, but with lawyers and caseworkers, even co-workers and schoolmates, revealing the way that a crime involves the entire community, not just the victim and the perpetrator.

Downham also subtly examines the many facets of justice. Mikey’s family is poor and must rely on public defense to prosecute Karyn’s accusation. Ellie’s family pays for a series of high-priced lawyers, all intended to give Tom the best chance for a successful defense. Downham sets the story in the months leading up to the trial, leaving the outcome of the case and even the events of the assault intentionally vague. The reader becomes the court of law, having to weigh the shifting evidence from Karyn’s behavior and accusation, to Ellie’s account of what she saw the night of the assault, and Tom’s plea of not guilty.

ME AGAINST YOU asks the question of what you would do if you found yourself caught up in a similar case. Would you defend your family at any price? Could you admit to the possibility that a crime had been committed by someone you know? Would you be willing to face the grueling prospect of testifying in court when it means your reputation is on the line? And how do you love someone when they are the enemy, or when the enemy becomes someone you thought you knew?

I would argue that love always changes the rules of the universe. In BEFORE I DIE, it cannot conquer death. In YOU AGAINST ME, it cannot alter the past or change the course of justice. But it almost always makes our lives --- and the lives of those we love --- more precious. Despite the difficult conflict around which it is built, this is a powerful book about the many forms love takes and the decision to savor it as long as it lasts.

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on September 13, 2011

You Against Me
by Jenny Downham

  • Publication Date: September 13, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: David Fickling Books
  • ISBN-10: 0385751605
  • ISBN-13: 9780385751605