Book Review: This Is Not Forgiveness by Celia Rees

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

First Published: 2nd February 2012 (expected)

Format: Paperback

Pages: 280

Genre: Contemporary, YA

Recommended Reading Age: 16+

Rating: 7.5/10

Amazon/Goodreads

‘Everyone says that Caro is bad …but Jamie can’t help himself. He thinks of her night and day and can’t believe that she wants to be his girlfriend. Gorgeous, impulsive and unconventional, she is totally different to all the other girls he knows. His sister, Martha, hates her. Jamie doesn’t know why, but there’s no way he’s going to take any notice of her warnings to stay away from Caro. But as Jamie falls deeper and deeper under her spell, he realises there is more to Caro – much more. There are the times when she disappears and doesn’t get in touch, the small scars on her wrists, her talk about revolutions and taking action, not to mention the rumours he hears about the other men in her life. And then always in the background there is Rob, Jamie’s older brother, back from Afghanistan and traumatized after having his leg smashed to bits there. Jamie wants to help him, but Rob seems to be living in a world of his own and is increasingly difficult to reach. With Caro, the summer should have been perfect …but that isn’t how things work out in real life, and Jamie is going to find out the hard way.’

This isn’t the kind of book where you fall in love with the characters and follow their story because you care about what happens to them. This is more of a psychological glimpse into some very real, very flawed characters. This Is Not Forgiveness focuses around war, terrorism, extremism, loyalty and love. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly is compelling.

This Is Not Forgiveness is something new from Celia Rees, who usually writes historical fiction. Her wonderful Witch Child is still one of my favourite books ever since I first read it years ago, so I was excited to be able to read and review an ARC copy of her new contemporary novel.

Since finishing I must admit, it’s still the very first chapter that remains with me. It captured me immediately and was beautifully written. Some books will have a sentence or two that are just perfect. For whatever reason, these words just strike a chord and stay with you, which was how I felt when reading Rees opening pages,

‘This is not forgiveness. Don’t think that.’

It begins with a series of funerals (its unclear how many) and a cheap, uncared for, urn. Rees sets the tone of the book early, with just the right amount of information and mystery to tease the reader into reading on to discover exactly what led to this moment.

There is a subtle underlying tension throughout the story. The reader is aware something significant took place, as we backtrack through Jamie’s memories. As we begin to better understand the three principal characters in this book, Jamie, Caro and Rob, this tension builds.

Caro is a rebel, or likes to think she is anyway. With an absent mother who blames her for her father’s suicide and a self-destructive streak, Caro invites trouble into her life and we soon realise she is caught up with a group of extremists, and is eager to do something big for their cause. The sections of the book told from Caro’s point of view are brief but reveal a lot about her character. For the majority of the book Caro is plain unlikable, the way she treats Jamie makes her hard to empathise with. She is manipulative, uncaring, cruel and is clearly using him, and his brother, for some hidden agenda. But we also see hints of a girl who is vulnerable, lonely and has been let down by people in her life.

Rob is definitely the hardest character to care for. An alcoholic, he is traumatized from the war, but it’s also clear his violent streak and mental problems go way back. Putting a gun in this guy’s hand and teaching him to be a sniper was probably never a very good idea. His experiences (and it is suggested that something took place that had to be covered up), and the damage done to his leg, have made him even more emotionally unstable. With Caro whispering in his ear, we know its only a matter of time before Rob goes of the rails.

The majority of This Is Not Forgiveness is told from Jamie’s point of view, as he re-lives everything leading up to the unknown event and tries to make sense of it all. Jamie is nice, if a little boring, and certainly naive in his view of the world in contrast to his increasingly disturbing brother, which makes him the least interesting character of the three. I became frustrated with Jamie firstly, for taking so long to see that Caro was using him and then for allowing her to continue to do so. He’s a regular guy who is way out of his depth when it comes to Caro and Rob.

I felt the three different narratives worked well alongside each other. Rees is very good at writing words that flow seamlessly together and I don’t think This Is Not Forgiveness would have worked if simply told from one person’s perspective. The story unfolded at a good pace, and you are left in the dark as to what exactly Caro and Rob are up to right until the last moment, though there are plenty of subtle hints along the way. I feel this is one of those stories that reads very different the second time around. It would be interesting to see just how many hints are staring at you going into the story for a second time, while knowing the outcome.

I actually went into this book not knowing anything much about it, and after reading it I couldn’t help thinking that it didn’t quite have the impact I would have expected. While Rees has created these incredibly real characters, I didn’t particularly care for any of them. I found the scenes between Jamie and Caro a little slow and couldn’t get invested in their relationship. I also found the story, which comes nicely around in a full circle, slightly anticlimactic.

Saying that, I think this was really Caro’s story all along and what she does for Jamie in the end is the defining moment of her character. Though This Is Not Forgiveness didn’t have quite the impact I was expecting in the end, in terms of Caro’s progression I think everything unfolded perfectly.

This is quite a dark, gritty tale with some beautifully written parts, and a little slow in others. I thought the final paragraph was particularly lovely. Not a favourite but a strong contemporary all the same.

*Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and UK Book Tours for making this ARC available for review*

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