Children's Literature - Cynthia Levinson
This quiet, compelling, and complex novel raisesand, appropriately for young adult readers, leaves unresolvedquestions about love, loyalty, responsibility, and revenge. Hyper-responsible Mikey McKenzie, a working-class teenager in small-town, coastal England, struggles to keep his fatherless family together. While Mum drinks, he works in a pub and tries to fend off social workers who are trying to protect them, especially seven-year-old Holly. When his fifteen-year-old sister Karyn claims that a wealthy boy named Tom Parker has raped her, he seeks revenge. Mikey's plan, however, unravels when he meets and falls in love with Tom's sister, Ellie. While this plot could devolve into a simplistic, confrontational story line, Downham maintains ambiguity through Ellie's uncertain loyalty to her own family, who ignores her while demanding that she stand up for her brother, even after she witnesses him attacking a classmate. When Mikey's friend Jacko accuses him of abandoning his promise to avenge his sister's rape, Mikey defensively accuses Jacko of being jealous. Relationships at all levels are threatened, even those between Tom and his solicitor, when Ellie finally changes her testimony, no longer trying to protect anyone but striving to tell the truth. Parents and siblings become aware of the facts, to the extent they are discernible, in a harrowing court scene, in which Ellie, even more than Tom, is accused of lying. Readers will be thoroughly involved in the young people's dilemmas and relationships; their feelings and their understandings will be deepened. Reviewer: Cynthia Levinson
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up—Mikey's life is a juggling act: Mum spends her days and nights with cheap sherry, seven-year-old sister Holly needs help getting to school each day, and Mikey is working at a menial job that offers the hope of a tantalizing career. He faces further complications when his 15-year-old sister, Karyn, completely withdraws, suffering the devastating aftermath of a rape by Tom Parker. Ellie Parker has always been a quiet little nerd until she witnesses her brother's brutal sexual assault of her classmate. The pressure from her family to protect Tom at all costs has forced her into the position of fabricating a statement to the police about what she knows. For both Mikey and Ellie, the balancing act of their personal lives becomes more precarious when they meet. They are drawn to each other but are torn between family solidarity, an inability to trust any member of the enemy's family, and the feelings of their hearts. Downham brilliantly captures the struggle of these two star-crossed lovers as they navigate the stormy waters of family loyalty, social workers and legal systems, job and school. With touching honesty, she brings her characters to life in this poignant story of love and choice. Mesmerizing.—Barbara M. Moon, Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, NY
Downham's strength here is in allowing for plenty of moral ambiguity…Most daringly, especially in contrast to the often simplistic portrayal of situations like these, Downham also shows Mikey and Ellie acting on their own dark impulses.
The New York Times
After Mikey's 15-year-old younger sister Karyn accuses college student Tom Parker of raping her, Mikey plans to avenge her. But when he goes to the Parkers' sprawling house, heavy spanner in hand, he meets Tom's younger sister, Ellie, and an attraction sparks between them. Downham's (Before I Die) sophomore novel is set in coastal England, and while there's a fair amount of detail about the English legal and school systems, as well as regional vernacular, the book's powerful themes are universal. As Mikey and Ellie's relationship deepens, and both feel forced to choose "sides," they struggle with their loyalty to their families, their feelings for one another, and broader issues of class, gender, and power. Well-drawn characters allow readers to sympathize with nearly everyone; Ellie, "the primary witness," is in a particularly difficult spot as she begins to waver about testifying for her brother ("I keep going over and over that night in my head and more stuff comes back to me, more things fit into place," she says). With no tidy solutions, it's an unflinching portrayal of love under pressure. Ages 14–up. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, July 18, 2011:
"Well-drawn characters allow readers to sympathize with nearly everyone...With no tidy solutions, it's an unflinching portrayal of love under pressure."
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2011:
"A tender, complex character study...Crisp, revealing dialogue, measured pacing and candid, unaffected prose round out this illuminating novel in which any reader can find someone to root for or relate to. Unforgettable."
New York Times Book Review, August 21, 2011:
"As the story builds to its tumultuous conclusion, Mikey and Ellie have to make the inevitable choice between new love and old allegiances...The hard question at the heart of this book — what would you do? — doesn’t have a single answer. For her young readers, Downham frames it remarkably well.”
Starred Review, School Library Journal, November 1, 2011:
"Downham brilliantly captures the struggle of these two star-crossed lovers as they navigate the stormy waters of family loyalty, social workers and legal systems, job and school. With touching honesty, she brings her characters to life in this poignant story of love and choice. Mesmerizing."
VOYA - Stacey Hayman
In the suburbs of England, fifteen-year-old Karyn was invited to Tom Parker's house after a night out. Now Karyn is saying that Tom raped her, and Mikey, Karyn's older brother, is determined to make Tom pay. When Mikey arrives on the posh side of town at the Parker's, he is surprised by the gated house, the party being planned, and most of all, his immediate connection with Ellie. Ellie is struggling to come to terms with the accusations leveled at her big brother and is grateful when she is distracted by an unknown boy at Tom's party. He seems sincerely interested in her, and she is intrigued by him. The pair realize they have something special, a way of making the other feel important and valued, that neither has had before. But knowing the reason they have met, how can they be together without someone getting hurt? The author provides glimpses into the emotional struggle of the rape victim, her family, the accused, and his family, but more than anything, this is the story of Mikey and Ellie. They are working through their individual issues and coping with their siblings' traumas while attempting to understand their intense connection. The small, well-developed core of characters has a sense of truth and helps create a sturdy backdrop for all the emotion. Almost impossible to put down once begun, the book's only misstep could be Karyn's night-to-day transformation after Ellie reveals a secret she has been keeping. Teens will desperately root for the young couple's happy future, and the author is kind enough to provide hints that a happy ending just might come true. Reviewer: Stacey Hayman
A tender, complex character study from the author of Before I Die (2007).
Mikey is a boy from the housing projects, working as a dishwasher in a pub to try and keep his fatherless family together. Ellie is a daughter from a privileged family whose biggest worry is passing her final exams. When Mikey's sister Karyn claims she was raped by Ellie's brother Tom at a party, Mikey cruelly plans to use Ellie to get close to Tom in order to exact revenge. Instead, the impossible happens: Mikey and Ellie fall in love. Now each feels that to swear allegiance to the other will tear their families apart. And when Ellie decides to change her statement about what she witnessed that fateful night, each family must come to terms with the inevitable consequences. In Dowham's capable hands, what could be the sordid topic of a daytime talk show instead becomes a graceful catalyst that tempers and transforms Ellie and Mikey, who only want to do what's right but aren't sure how. The secondary characters are equally vivid, especially Mikey's overwhelmed alcoholic Mum and Ellie's tormenting and tormented brother Tom. Crisp, revealing dialogue, measured pacing and candid, unaffected prose round out this illuminating novel in which any reader can find someone to root for or relate to.
Unforgettable. (Fiction. 14 & up)
Read an Excerpt
Mikey couldn’t believe his life. Here was the milk on the counter in front of him. Here was Ajay, hand out expectantly. And here was Mikey, scrabbling for coins among the old receipts and bits of tissue in his jacket pocket. A woman in the queue behind him shuffled her feet. Behind her, a bloke coughed impatiently.
Anger stirred Mikey’s gut. ‘Sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘I’ll have to leave it.’
Ajay shook his head. ‘Take the milk and pay me tomorrow, it’s all right. And here, take some chocolate for your sisters.’
‘No. You’re OK.’
‘Don’t be daft, take it.’ Ajay put a couple of Kit Kats in the carrier bag with the milk. ‘And have a good day, yeah?’
Mikey doubted it. He hadn’t had one of those for weeks. Still, he managed a quick nod of thanks, grabbed the bag and legged it.
Outside, the rain was still going, a fine mist falling into light from the fluorescent strip above the door. He breathed in deep, trying to smell the sea, but the air smelled of fridges – something to do with the fans blowing warm from the shop behind him. He yanked up his hood and crossed the road back to the estate.
When he got back to the flat, Holly was sitting on the carpet in front of the TV, eating Cookie Crisps from the packet. Karyn had stopped crying and was kneeling behind her, quietly brushing her sister’s hair.
Mikey looked her up and down. ‘You feeling better?’
‘So, you want to tell me what happened?’
Karyn shrugged. ‘I tried to go out. I got as far as the front door.’
‘Well, that’s something.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Crack open the champagne.’
‘It’s a start.’
‘No, Mikey, it’s the end. Holly needed milk for cereal and I couldn’t even manage that.’
‘Well, I’ve got some now, so you want a cup of tea?’
He went to the kitchen and filled the kettle. He opened the curtains, then the window. The rain was slowing down and it smelled fresh out there now. He could hear a child crying. A woman shouting. A door slammed three times. Bang. Bang. Bang.
Holly came in and dumped the cereal box on the counter. Mikey waggled the collar of her pyjama top. ‘Why aren’t you dressed for school?’
‘Because I’m not going.’
‘Yeah, you are.’
She collapsed backwards against the fridge, her head flung up towards the ceiling. ‘I can’t go to school, it’s the bail hearing!’
He frowned at her. How the hell did she know about that? ‘Listen, Holly, if you promise to go and get dressed, I’ll give you a Kit Kat.’
‘Is it two or four sticks?’
He rummaged in the carrier bag, pulled out one of the bars and dangled it at her. ‘And can you wake Mum up?’
Holly looked up, surprised. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah.’ If this wasn’t an emergency, he didn’t know what was.
Holly shook her head as if the idea was crazy, grabbed the Kit Kat and ran away up the stairs.
Mum thought the police would help Karyn, that was the trouble. After taking Karyn to the station and reporting what had happened, Mum had stepped back, probably telling herself she’d done her bit. But the police were crap. They’d asked Karyn loads of personal questions, even though she was upset. Then the cop who brought her home frowned at the mess, like she was judging the whole family. Mum thought that was normal, but Mikey had bitten his tongue in frustration, tasted blood in his mouth, the rust and the thickness of it.
Later, when the cop went, Mikey got the address out of Karyn and told Jacko to bring the car. Jacko brought the lads with him too, but when they got to the bastard’s house they were too late – Tom Parker had been arrested hours ago and forensics were already scouring the place.
For nearly two weeks Mikey had tried to swallow the anger. But how did he stop his stomach tilting every time Karyn cried? How did he watch Holly stroking Karyn’s arm, squeezing her shoulder, giving little wet taps to her face, like she was a radio that needed tuning or a TV that had gone wrong?
Mum’s solution was to hide herself away. But an eight-year-old comforting a fifteen-year-old meant the world was upside down. And something had to be done about it.
He made the tea and took it through, put it on the table in front of Karyn. She’d made a nest for herself on the sofa. She kept doing that – covering herself with cushions, blankets, jumpers.
Mikey went over and sat on the edge. ‘How you feeling now?’
With the light behind her she looked so sad.
‘He’s probably out already,’ she said. ‘Just walking about having a nice time.’
‘He won’t be allowed anywhere near you. He won’t be allowed to text you or talk to you or anything. He’ll probably be tagged, so he can’t go out after dark.’
She nodded, but she didn’t look sure. ‘There’s this girl at school,’ she said. ‘Last term she had seven boyfriends and everyone said she was a slag.’
This again. ‘You’re not a slag, Karyn.’
‘And there’s a boy in my tutor group and he had ten girlfriends. You know what they call him?’
Mikey shook his head.
‘Well, they’re wrong.’
‘So what’s the word for someone like him?’
‘I don’t know.’
She sighed, lay back on the sofa and stared at the ceiling. ‘I watched this programme on TV,’ she said. ‘What happened to me happens to loads of girls. Loads and loads.’
Mikey looked at his nails. They were all ragged. Did he bite them? When did he start doing that?
‘Most girls don’t report it, because hardly any boys get done for it. Something like six in a hundred. That’s not very many, is it?’
Mikey shook his head again, bit his lip.
‘When I opened the door just now, there were some kids down in the courtyard and they all looked at me. If I go back to school, everyone will stare at me too.’ She lowered her eyes and he felt the shame wash off her in waves. ‘They’ll look at me as if I deserved it. Tom Parker invited me to his house and I went, so how can anything be his fault?’ She pushed a handful of hair from her face. ‘That doesn’t even make any sense.’
He wanted her to stop talking. He felt a rising panic that if she didn’t stop right now, she was going to go on and on for ever. Maybe she’d even talk about the night it happened. He couldn’t bear to listen to that again.
‘I’m going to get him for you,’ he said. It came out loud and sounded very certain.
It was strange how words meant something when they came out of your mouth. Inside your head they were safe and silent, but once they were outside, people grabbed hold of them.
She sat up. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘I’m going to go to his house and smash his head in.’
Karyn pressed the flat of her hand against her forehead as if the thought of it gave her a headache. ‘You’ll never get away with it.’
But Mikey could tell by the sudden glow in her eyes that she wanted him to do this for her. He hadn’t done it and he should have done it. And if he did it, then she could stop hurting.
From the Hardcover edition.