Author(s): Sarah Crossan, Brian Conaghan
Publication date: 9 February 2017
Genre(s): verse, contemporary
Series or standalone?: standalone
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository
Acclaimed authors Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan join forces to tell the story of Nicu and Jess, two troubled teens whose paths cross in the unlikeliest of places.
Jess and Nicu are from different worlds. Tough city girl Jess doesn’t trust anyone, hiding the violence of her home life behind a mask of arrogance and disillusion. Nicu has emigrated from Romania and is struggling to find a place in his new home. When they meet, what starts out as an unexpected friendship turns to romance as the two bond over their painful pasts and hopeful futures. But with their worlds catching up to them, will they be able to save each other, let alone themselves?
I was lucky enough to read quite an early copy of this book, and let me tell you: it was worth the hype. (And you know how I feel about hype). Compelling, gritty and a little devastating, We Come Apart somehow emerges from the thunderous rumblings of pre-release anticipation with both surprises up its sleeve and writing that lives up to expectations. Crossan and Conaghan, already at the top of their game as individual writers, prove once again why they are critically acclaimed Carnegie and Costa winners respectively and reveal that collaboration has indeed sparked something new in their repertoire. With a keen sense of story and an eye for detail, this dynamic dual narrative is a back-and-forth of fearless proportions. It is unflinching, engaging, sharp and occasionally, totally heartbreaking.
We Come Apart is is helmed by two tour-de-force leads with distinctive verse voices. Jess is a gobby, streetwise London teenager turned truant who feels fed up with school and with adults who try to tell her what to do when they can’t – or won’t – see what’s right in front of them. Nicu, on the other hand, is what you’d call “a good egg.” He is naive, kind, straightforward, and big-hearted, but lives in a life, bound by the confines of culture and the traditions of family, in which it is difficult to be so. Both long for understanding, friendship and freedom. Both discover it, at least for a while, in each other. In a novel where every word is up for scrutiny, their presence dominates and leaves the rest of the cast for dust.(Nicu is an easy favourite. He will be everyone’s favourite).
This book is striking partly because Jess and Nicu’s story at first seems like one that doesn’t belong in poetry. This is poetry with shoplifting, criminal records, peer pressure, community service, and class in. It explores immigration, racism, prejudice, and clashing cultures. It features characters who experience disenfranchisement, distrust, and domestic violence. But is is also rarely about those things: instead it is often about friendship and strength and kindness and hope. It’s about loyalty and betrayal and realizing that, for better or worse, everyone has a choice when it comes to who and what they want to be. There is a sense that it is very deliberately saying to readers, “Look what we can do with poetry. This story belongs in poetry, too.”
For an audience often forced to stare at stanzas until their eyes fall out or the carefully-highlighted exam-worthy words lose all meaning, We Come Apart will be a bit of a shock, but it’s a worthwhile read. It may, in the hands of an open-minded gatekeeper, find favour in classrooms and library recommendation shelves or even persuade the skeptical that poetry is, every now and then, more than daffodils, metaphors and toffs with nothing better to do than write melodramatically about their feelings or the weather. (The Daffodils, by the way, was probably about the French Revolution). And of course, there’s plenty to satisfy the seasoned YA reader, too, including a page-turning pace, a handful of plot twists, and an effective narrative style.
The book is not without fault – it could use more heart or humour, the verse isn’t perfect, and, often bleak and far more bitter than sweet, it’s a difficult read, so it’s probably not the best to choose if you’re looking for something cheery. There are stereotypes, it may be triggering and it’s problematic. But that’s kind of the point, because the story is certainly strong: Conaghan and Crossan have set out to take the unpoetic, the sometimes unpleasant, and prove their ability to give it poetic form, and in that they have succeeded. As with many verse novels it’s quite a fast read, but it’s not easily forgotten. Fans of Phil Earle, Keren David and Benjamin Zephaniah will find an ideal recommendation in this poetic turn. Expect to see it up for multiple awards this year.
Sharp, unflinching and well-written, this novel-in-verse marks a milestone collaboration for Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan. Moments of hope and friendship litter the bittersweet story of Jess and Nicu, two very different but very human characters.