I think I am too old for this book. Where others might see a thrilling plot I saw deliberate artifice. Where some might see a young woman clouded by passion, I found a rather irritating teenager. I read a reasonable amount of Young Adult fiction, but rarely do I they make me feel like an out of touch and world-weary parent.
This is probably because I tend to read dystopian YA. The end of the world through the eyes of a teenager is much as the same as it is for grown-ups, except perhaps that the collapse of humanity is more poignant if you have children of your own. Follow me Down is essentially a teenage love story, albeit against the background of a mystery.
Be warned. This review contains mild spoilers.
I wasn’t that impressed with the novel from the outset. The setting and three central characters had me rolling my eyes. At Posh Boarding School. New Girl from overseas, catches the eye of Most Popular Girl (who is also a self-obsessed manipulative bitch) and they vie for the attentions of Filthy-Rich and Rebellious boy. There is also a Dark and Scary Woods in which Bad Things Happen. Characters and settings that hardly feel original or inspire any confidence that you’re in for a treat. Especially when you add in Geeky but Dishy new teacher (Think David Tenant playing you know Who?)
In reality, Tanya Byrne more than succeeds in bring fresh life to old constructs. Her settings are well drawn and the characters have more significantly more depth than I expected. As the novel opens Most Popular Girl is missing, but as she runs away all the time, should anybody be worried? The story is narrated in the first person by New Girl, and is split across two time lines. One leads up to the disappearance and the other away from it.
There is a lot of ambiguity in this novel, which at first I enjoyed. Just how much does New Girl know? Was she involved? Why did she and Most Popular Girl fall out? Was anybody really raped in the woods? This final question gives rise to the novel’s strongest strand: An exploration of modern attitudes towards sex, particularly focusing around society’s perception of rape, and the difficulty of reporting it as a crime. Byrne offers much food for thought around girl’s blaming themselves and the difficulty of saying no, once you’re alone together. It’s important and affecting stuff.
Byrne also examines and exposes the father-daughter bond. There is a beautiful passage where New Girl talks about the change in the relationship between her and her father. At four, he could fix anything. Her protector. At seventeen, it is she who protects him from the harsh realities of modern teenage-life. It’s sad and regretful tone, made me want to hold my own children close and never let them grow up (also saving a fortune on new shoes).
There may be some great writing, but I found Follow Me Down to be overlong. There is altogether too much teenage gushing about the wonderfulness of New Girl’s boyfriend, and the way her heart skips when she sees him, and how she’ll die if doesn’t. I’m possibly being unfair; I remember feeling like this whenever my romantic life wasn’t going according to plan (most of the time). I remember my Mum telling me it would get better. I didn’t believe her, but of course she was right. It is only now that I’m grown up and married that I understand what love really is. What had come in those early years was merely infatuation. Now I’m in a place where I just want to tell New Girl to pull herself together and stop being so melodramatic. Of course this is a true depiction of teenage romance. I’m just too old to want to hear about it.
For the purposes of the plot, the identity of New Girl’s squeeze is kept secret. It’s clearly either Filthy-Rich and Rebellious or Geeky but Dishy, with a couple of incidental characters thrown in as conceivably possible outliers. New Girl only ever refers to her boyfriend as ‘him’, which works at first, but Byrne tries to maintain it over far too long a period. By the end it was clearly just a device to keep us guessing. This didn’t quite fit in with the first-person narrative. If New Girl is telling us a tale of terrible woe and trauma, why is she doing so in such a way to keep us in suspense. It isn’t credible, nor is the fact that both main boyfriend contenders insist on calling her ‘Miss Surname’, for the entirety of the book. One because he’s can being ironic, the other, because he’s her teacher. Again, this might have worked for a smaller amount of pages, but the device is used for too long, and it becomes irritating.
The novel’s climax is interesting. The resolution is mostly satisfactory, although the full extent of boyfriend’s duplicity stretched my credulity beyond acceptable limits. The drama between New Girl and Most Popular Girl is consistent and accurate, and one of the novel’s greatest assets. Overall, Follow Me Down is a well-written, intriguing novel, that keeps you guessing. Whilst the central mystery held my interest, the drama around it wasn’t for me, but I’m not sure it was ever the author’s intention that it should be.
One final observation, my wife described Follow me Down as ‘good’. Considering she often rates very fine books as ‘quite good’ this is definitely a positive review. It takes a lot to impress my wife (in books at least, her taste in men is less attuned), so this book is doing something right. She shared some of my dislikes but felt the strength of the writing and the delicate balancing of the mystery far outstripped any failings. As she’s never wrong, it rather renders my review obsolete!
Many thanks to Sam at Headline for sending me a copy of this book.