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You Against Me - Jenny Downham 3.5 starsWhen I was at the beach as a kid, I used to regularly do this thing where I would swim out as far as I could, just to see how much distance I could cover. I’d swim until my arms got tired, then stop to catch my breath before turning around. I never stopped doing it, but I’d be lying if I said that every single time, I didn’t experience a second of sheer panic when realized I was just suspended there, well and truly out of my depth.I feel a little like that trying to write this review. (Also, ocean swimming is mentioned in this book so I’m not being entirely off topic). I’m sitting here nervously hunched over my keyboard, because I can feel what I want to say, I’m just not entirely sure I’ll be able to articulate it. And You Against Me is a book that takes the reader into deep water, so to speak. I just want to be sure of my footing. I’ve read other books that deal with sexual assault, where the story centres around the emotional and mental journey of a character who has been assaulted. Most recently, Raw Blue.You Against Me is somewhat different in that it focuses on the family members of both the accuser and the accused, how it alters their lives and what happens when revenge and doubt collide. I’ll start by saying that this is a very readable book, and I enjoyed Downham’s particular writing style. It’s pared back, almost stark, and suited to the somber, often bleak atmosphere of the setting and the story. Then there are occasional passages that are unexpectedly expressive and vivid, spots of beauty amid the almost oppressively grim tone. Downham certainly captures the respective worlds her characters live in with unflinching bluntness. It’s particularly effective in juxtaposing the two different socio-economic backgrounds of Mikey and Ellie. In this and other ways it’s a book of contrasts, pushing different sides into conflict and comparison. Downham’s characterisation is also excellent. Mikey, Ellie and the supporting characters felt like real, flawed, somewhat broken people attempting to go about their lives however they knew. None of the characters are particularly “likeable”, but I’d argue that’s not really the point in a book like this. Downham seems to be simply demonstrating what people are capable of, good and bad. I do think that she shows courage in writing her characters this way, allowing her “protagonists”, Mikey and Ellie, to do unsympathetic things. Then there are parts of this book that are outright uncomfortable, sections that I found extremely difficult to read. It’s a horrible truth that victim-blaming is still alive and well in society, and Downham doesn’t back down from showing this. Whether it’s the bald remarks about “slutty” clothing, drinking and girls “asking for it”, or the more subtle but intensely stomach-churning comments Mikey’s mother makes in which she implies that her daughter has brought trouble upon herself and the family by speaking up – none of it is easy to read. I’m very much aware that these kind of things are still said, and that Downham is accurately presenting what sadly happens every day, but to be honest, I struggled with it. There is a fine line between being brutally realistic and propagating a harmful pattern of belief. While victim-blaming and consent is addressed, certain scenes still made me upset. Maybe this was the point - to drag this issue out in the light, to show that these judgments are not okay. Does it succeed? Yes? I think so? I don’t know.Aside from this, You Against Me does a brilliant job of keeping the reader uncertain and unsettled. By forcing her characters in nightmarish circumstances and testing their allegiances to the full extent, I was never quite sure up until the last few pages where it was going to go. The title is extremely appropriate for this story. Initially, it appears to reference the cross-purposes of Ellie and Mikey. However, as the story evolves, it becomes clear that this expression could be applied to all of the characters at various points, as they are all drawn into the depths of this complex and harrowing situation, particularly as regards family, the urge to protect, and the extent of denial. You Against Me is a challenging and tough book. I have to admire the way Downham tackles the subject matter honestly and openly, and I hope it provokes more conversation and thought about these issues.