Talking about ‘difficult’ or even taboo topics in a YA-novel (or any novel for that matter) is like walking on a tightrope. One false movement and your book can turn out as a sappy sobfest or worse a sentimental piece of drivel masked as a Novel About Important Issues. When done right however, you might end up with a book that will live to tell a tale of courage, honesty and optimism. With Before I Die Jenny Downham already proved that she can keep the sentimentality in check, yet write a gut-wrenchingly honest book about what it means to know you are dying, yet trying to live your life to the max. Despite the fact that she wrote about a girl who is dying from cancer and there will be tears involved when you read this book, Downham’s down-to-earth prose never made this into just another tearjerker.
With You Against Me, she tackles another ‘difficult’ topic: the rape of a 15-year-old girl and the implications this event has for the people in this girl’s life. Mikey’s younger sister, Karyn, accuses a boy, Tom, of assaulting her. As a good brother, Mikey feels it is his duty to avenge the wrong that’s been done to his sister, and tries to get to know Tom and his (rich) life. That’s how he comes into contact with Ellie, Tom’s younger sister, who was the only “witness” on the night the alleged rape took place and who is set to testify in her brother’s favor at a hearing.
Rather than going for the easy way out and writing a straightforward romance story (because of course Mikey and Ellie have chemistry in the star-crossed lover kind of way), Downham manages to weave the intricacies of being in their difficult shoes into the novel and she focuses more on the effect the rape has on the people in both families than she does on the romance between Ellie and Mikey. The emotions and actions she describes are those of denial, blind trust, belief and disbelief, anger and fear. Downham manages to write convincingly. The language is realistic and honest.
However, if the cat is brutally honest, she has to say that, despite Downham’s honest depiction of the consequences of rape on those involved, some of the characters are either caricatures (Tom & Ellie’s father to name the most obvious one) or plot devices (Karyn, the girl who was raped never even gets to tell her story). Also the whole “poor council estate people = rude, yet honest and good” vs “rich middle class people = sophisticated yet evil”, hmpfff… just a tad biased and stereotypical, right? On the other hand, maybe this is just a realistic reflection of British society? This image of classism is definitely something that a lot of British books and series seem to have in common.
Final verdict: Downham paints a fairly balanced picture when it comes to showing the consequences of rape on those involved, but strangely enough, the characters she needs to draw that picture are often shown in black and white… You against me is an overall good book, but Speak it ain’t…