'This Is Not Forgiveness' by Celia Rees

If there’s one thing that can be said for a book that begins with the main character staring at an urn containing his brother’s ashes, it’s that you’re sure as hell not putting down the book until you find out how he dies.

Such is the case with This Is Not Forgiveness, the most recent Young Adult novel to come from the writing-desk of Celia Rees. I will freely admit that I went into this book with an eye to be critical; Rees is a tutor on the Arvon Foundation’s creative writing courses, and a fellow Plot Bunny recently attended one such course, returning with tales of having her work poked apart by Rees (but praising her uncompromising approach). Naturally, I took this as a challenge to find any holes I could in This Is Not Forgiveness.

To my secret disappointment, but to Celia Rees’s credit, I didn’t really find any. It’s a pretty watertight book.

After the initial introduction, we’re transported back to the summer of the previous year, when the bulk of the story is set. Shifting perspective between three central characters, the story is one of misguided actions and hidden intentions. Jamie, the adolescent brother of wounded soldier Rob, finds himself falling for a beautiful and dangerous young woman named Caro. Drawn to her mysterious, radical personality - and despite numerous warnings that she’s bad news - Jamie develops an obsession that becomes a reality as the two of them form a relationship. He begins to fit to her mould - developing into a more spontaneous, outgoing, and perceptive young man.

What Jamie doesn’t have at first - what we, as the reader, are given from the beginning - is insight into the way Caro thinks. Through her portions of the story, it soon becomes clear that she’s more interested in making an impact on society than making an impact on Jamie’s life. Her radical notions may be developing into radical intentions, and when she crosses paths with Rob on a messy night out, she thinks she may have found a way to set her plans in motion. Rees takes her time drawing this out, and we’re given hints along the way, but it’s perfectly paced to keep the reader tense right up until the last minute.

Rob’s chapters come more rarely, and are intended to be read as though they’re spoken video diaries. They’re even complete with URLs in this edition, although that may have changed when the book went to press, since the links bounce and I have to do a bit of digging to find the videos. They exist, and if you go to the trouble of finding them it adds another element that isn’t common in fiction: the book reaches into the real world. It’s a very neat idea, and it makes the book seem that much more believable. Despite the fact that there’s a big difference between written prose and how a video blog would read if you wrote it down verbatim, there’s a disarming honesty to Rob’s chapters, his record of how war has changed him, and it’s very compelling.

Relationships become deeper and things become more complicated as the book progresses. Rees’s portrait of British adolescence is laced with the false glamour of alcohol and sex, but they aren’t treated casually or misrepresented. The characters’ actions have consequences, render them vulnerable, and uncomfortable truths bubble to the surface. Their family lives are far from perfect; the details we get of home routines and absent parents are very well-crafted, bringing keen insight into why characters act the way they do. Jamie’s relationship with his brother - told from both sides, but mainly from Jamie’s - is outstandingly written; Rees perfectly captures the fraternal tension, occasional joys and uncomfortable, intimidating physicality of a dominant older sibling.

When the book reaches its climax, the pace builds suddenly, and - given that this book begins by handing you one character’s ashes in an urn - you’ll come to it with your own conclusions about what’s going to happen. Rest assured that the ending retains a feeling of unpredictability, despite some things seeming inevitable, and it’s a gripping finale.

Well done, Celia Rees. You’ve passed the test. I give you license to poke holes in my peers’ work (as if your fifteen years of full-time writing didn’t allow you to do that already). This Is Not Forgiveness is a brutal, honest and worryingly realistic story of late-teen idealism, dangerous actions and unforeseen consequences.