This sharply inventive novel opens with an unnamed defendant who sacks his lawyer and is about to give his own defence speech. This man has been accused of the murder of a young gang member named Jamil. Based on forensic and circumstantial evidence, this is a clear cut, open-and-shut case which convicts him for the murder. In his closing speech, the defendant walks us through the eight pieces of evidence which implicate him in this case, explaining how and why those facts don’t tell the whole story. We, the readers, are supposed to act as the jury and decide his fate.
The story is equal parts eye-opening and affecting. The plight of this young black man is the same as countless others who are stuck in a system of poverty and gang subculture. Their sense of self esteem doesn’t come from their family and/or educational institutes. These neglected young kids get involved in gangs as they give them a sense of belonging which they so crave. They are finally a part of a ‘brotherhood’ who would literally kill for them.
The story unspools with an enthralling pace and during the course of the narration, the defendant gives us a vivid glimpse into a ghetto neighborhood in London and scoffs at our preconceived notions about hood culture which are mostly derived from preposterous American mafia movies. He takes us into the life of gangs and how kids get embroiled in the vicious cycle of money and drugs as that’s the only way out of their poor financial prospects. Coming from impoverished backgrounds, being a gang member allows them some modicum of power and control which they then spend their lives trying to retain by vying for the top spot within their group.
“It’s not like they sit there thinking these things through. Nobody does. This is just their reality, like your reality is that it’s okay to waste your life working till you’re old and then to retire just in time to die. It’s all stupidness. It’s just that when you’re in it, you can’t see it.”
It is a bold move to write an almost a 400 first person narrative and I did find my attention wavering in the last part of the story. The narrator often goes off on tangents, interrupting his account with idle musings and back stories but it does lend his words a sense of authenticity since people rarely talk in a streamlined manner. The narrator’s voice reminded me of that of The Sellout which was one of my favourite books last year. Both protagonists are acerbic, occasionally nonchalant and brazen. The digressive writing somehow works but does get distracting at times.
Imran makes pertinent points about the legal system through this story. How can we ensure an objective and fair verdict when our prejudices play into how we perceive people. For the accused it is a matter of life and death while for jury members this is just a job to do before they go back to their cushy lives. This flawed justice system discriminates against people who happen to fit the prevalent stereotypes about their race or ethnicity.
The story also gives a desolating perspective of a man who has grown up seeing domestic violence around him. Our protagonist is an impulsive, street-smart guy who tries to stay away from any kind of trouble and is supported bythe strong women around him – his mother, sister and whip-smart girlfriend who plays a crucial role in the story and basically the one who sets the wheels in motion which leads to the murder. The defendant does whatever he has to do to protect his loved ones, depicting how when the safety of one’s family is on the lines, a person would go to any lengths to protect them. All the acts he commits are out of desperation with no ulterior motives and shows to what lengths one has to go to to protect themselves when they know that the law enforcement agencies would be of no help since the system is rigged against them.
Imran is a criminal barrister himself and derives a lot of material from his professional experiences, which is obvious by his compassionate approach to a criminal defence. What is most striking is that this story underscores the failure of institutions which do not allow much choice to low income, BAME individuals. Mostly when we read headlines which say black kid convicted of murder, most people will react with ‘Here we go again!’ without really knowing the context in which the crime took place. And that is how so many disadvantaged people from minority backgrounds become victim of a system which in inherently biased. How can a jury member be fair to the defendant when he hasn’t walked in his shoes? This book will make you ponder that and other grave matters related to the legal system.
You Don’t Know Me is a slick and provocative novel which makes bold choices in terms of narration style and the themes addressed. It is an incendiary debut which prods, vexes and asks raw, boldly honest questions.
Imran Mahmood is a Criminal defence barrister with over twenty years’ experience in the Crown Court and Court of Appeal. He specialises in Legal Aid cases involving crimes such as murder and other serious violence as well as fraud and sexual offences. He was born in Liverpool and now lives in London with his wife and daughter.
You Don’t Know Me was published by Penguin Michael Joseph on 4th May 2017.
To discover more about Penguin Michael Joseph click here…
Review by Rabeea Saleem
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