There are very few books written entirely as a monologue. In fact, I can think of just one other, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamed. No doubt there are other examples, but it’s fair to say that it is rare. Whereas the Reluctant Fundamentalist has the narrator sitting in a cafe in Lahore, telling his story to a lone American, You Don’t Know Me has the narrator addressing a whole court room. For the entire narrative of this novel is a defendant – having sacked his barrister at the end of his trial for murder – standing up and delivering his own closing speech.
Our narrator is an inner-city young black man, portrayed by the prosecution as being a gang member. He stands accused of gunning down a man in the street. The evidence the prosecution has marshalled appears damning: mobile phone cell sites put him in the locale at the same time the victim was shot, he was seen arguing with the victim days before, upon arrest a Baikal handgun was found in his flat, gunshot residue was found on his hands and clothes, finally, a large sum of money was found in a bag in his kitchen.
You Don’t Know Me starts off with our narrator explaining why he sacked his barrister, why against his brief’s advice, he has decided not only to deliver his own closing speech, but to tell the jury what he claims to be the whole truth, leaving out nothing. He warns the jury that some of what he is about to tell them will not be flattering, that rather than portray him in a good light, it will damn him. But, and here’s the crux, if the jury – and by extension us, the reader – will just bear with him, his innocence of the murder he stands accused of will become apparent.
And so, our narrator launches upon his explanation. He starts by going through the evidence ranged against him, rebutting it and giving alternative explanations, but as he progresses he can’t help but get side-tracked down narrative alleyways of explanation. What results is a fascinating tale of a young man’s existence on the periphery of gang life in modern urban Britain. As he tells it, slowly, inexorably, he’s sucked into the orbit of vicious gangsters and organised crime bosses, a state of affairs that leads to beatings, shoot outs and dead bodies.
Imran Mahmood, the author of You Don’t Know Me, is a barrister practising in criminal law. He has defended many a defendant accused of being in gangs and having committed serious crimes. He says that he was motivated to write You Don’t Know Me to explore these issues and how young men get pulled into such a life. To my mind he’s done this admirably and I felt real empathy for someone who in the real world it would be all too easy to demonise. How many times does one open a newspaper, read the latest court reports of an offender sent to prison for stabbing or shooting somebody, dismiss them as evil, criminal scum? At no point does Mahmood glorify these crimes, but he does humanise the offender, show that often they are victims in their own right.
You Don’t Know Me is not some social justice rant however. While forcing the reader to confront some thorny social issues, it is also a damn fine read, a whodunit almost. A great aspect of this book is that the verdict is not given at the end, rather, we the reader are the jury and it is up to us to conclude in our own minds whether he is guilty or not.
The apotheosis of this comes with the final twist at the end. I won’t give away spoilers, but at first this strained credibility for me, had me thinking the narrator had gone too far. But then he says to the jury – us, the readers – strange things happen in life, there are deaths which appear to be the result of conspiracies, and is it too much of a stretch that he is the victim of another? Immediately my mind turned to the deaths of Dr David Kelly, Alexander Litvinenko, even famous assassinations like those of John F Kennedy and I thought perhaps I should give the narrator the benefit of the doubt.
I won’t say whether I judged our defendant-narrator guilty or not guilty once I had read the final page. What I will say is that anyone reading this review who hasn’t read You Don’t Know Me should read it and judge for themselves!
Brilliant and original, this is a definite 5 star read!