Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
An unnamed defendant stands accused of murder. Just before the Closing Speeches, the young man sacks his lawyer, and decides to give his own defence speech.
He tells us that his barrister told him to leave some things out. Sometimes, the truth can be too difficult to explain, or believe. But he thinks that if he’s going to go down for life, he might as well go down telling the truth.
There are eight pieces of evidence against him. As he talks us through them one by one, his life is in our hands. We, the reader – member of the jury – must keep an open mind till we hear the end of his story. His defence raises many questions… but at the end of the speeches, only one matters:
Did he do it?
I finished You Don’t Know Me in the middle of February. That would usually see it languish on the ever-growing list of books that I’ve read, maybe mentioned on here or on Twitter in passing and then moved on from before getting the time to review “properly”. There’s something about You Don’t Know Me, though, that’s really stuck with me and even three months later I can still recall bits of it so vividly that it really does merit an individual appearance.
It was the structure and narrative style that originally made me pick it up. The narrator is an unnamed defendant standing accused of murder, with eight seemingly fairly damning pieces of evidence stacked against him. In the final days of his trial, the narrator sacks his barrister and decides to deliver his own closing speech to the jury, claiming that there are key facts about his case that his barrister either can’t properly explain or won’t let him reveal. The novel is that closing speech, addressed to readers as members of the jury. Chapter breaks occur when the jury takes a break for lunch or the session adjourns for the day.
Mahmood is a criminal defence barrister who specialises in legal aid cases. I think it’s that which makes the structure work – the breaks, the tension and the pacing all ring true and it never feels over-engineered or gimmicky. It’s obvious that he’s writing about what he knows and, perhaps more importantly, that he’s writing with real empathy. There’s one particular section that really stuck with me about use of language. The defendant was heard muttering a phrase to the victim that sounds incriminating; when he explains it himself, he points out that really it only sounds incriminating if you interpret it using the “normal” sense of the words. In the area that the defendant lives and the groups that he moves in, it means something entirely different. Mahmood uses that to highlight how our judicial system might be flawed (without a sledgehammer – don’t worry). Being tried by a jury of your peers is only fair if those people really are your ‘peers’, if they can understand you and the way you speak and present yourself.
I suppose that to those who aren’t law nerds like me, that all makes You Don’t Know Me sound dull. It really isn’t. The defendant’s speech reveals a tangled web of Londons gang culture, drugs and violence. His story isn’t the type of story I’d usually choose to pick up. It took me a bit of getting into at first, when the more legal feeling opening was over and we got into the nitty gritty of the defendant’s life. There’s a lot of use of dialect and local slang and that threw me off a bit too. Get into it I did, though. It wasn’t flawless and there were times when the plot seemed a bit much but my need to know what happened trampled on my reservations and I turned the pages vaguely obsessively.
Now I’ll admit that on first finishing You Don’t Know Me, I was pretty annoyed. The novel ends when our defendant’s closing speech ends. It doesn’t go on to the jury’s deliberations or, perhaps more importantly, to their verdict. It stops. When I turned the last page at the time, I was so invested in the story that I gaped indignantly at my husband and grumbled about how I felt cheated out of an ending. It was only after I’d got a little distance that I realised that whether or not the defendant is guilty isn’t really the point. The point (at least for me) was about how our society and its communities have developed and diversified and how maybe we need to take a minute to consider whether our criminal justice system needs to change to match.
Overall: If you aren’t convinced by me, Mahmood did a brilliant interview with the Guardian about 12 months ago that you can read here. The more I think about You Don’t Know Me, the more I love it. I borrowed a copy from the library and I’m going to buy my own copy now that the paperback is out. It’s Mahmood’s debut novel and if he ever writes anything else, I’ll definitely read it.