An unnamed defendant stands accused of murder. Just before the Closing Speeches, the young man sacks his lawyer, and decides to give his own defence speech.

He tells us that his barrister told him to leave some things out. Sometimes, the truth can be too difficult to explain, or believe. But he thinks that if he’s going to go down for life, he might as well go down telling the truth.

There are eight pieces of evidence against him. As he talks us through them one by one, his life is in our hands. We, the reader – member of the jury – must keep an open mind till we hear the end of his story. His defence raises many questions, but at the end of the speeches, only one matters…

Penned by criminal defence barrister Imran Mahmood, You Don’t Know Me, provides a refreshingly different take on the legal thriller genre, challenging the reader, and manipulating our empathy throughout as we listen to the voice of one young man on trial for murder.

The use of the first person narration throughout will admittedly be not to everyone’s taste, as some readers have a real aversion to this narrative structure. However, as the book is structured as a young man giving his own testimony, seeking to win over judge and jury alike, I rather liked the intensely personal nature of this device, and the fact that this leads you to be totally engaged with the unnamed defendant’s lengthy closing statement. By not naming the young man directly, and having every experience of his filtered through his own particular viewpoint, cleverly we actually see more the manipulation of others, the inherent stupidity of his actions and his misguided loyalty through his own damning testimony. The first person narrative, however, is not without problems as sustaining this over 370 pages, leads to a wavering between erudition and rambling, so there were some periods where my attention did falter, unlike in slimmer novels that use the same narrative technique.

Sometimes in order to prove the intelligence and self awareness of the unnamed defendant his language seemed to diversify at times from the street smart vernacular that was more in evidence at the start of the book to a heightened sensibility of his predicament that seemed slightly at odds with the initial perception we have of him as a character. However, I fully appreciate the fact that if the narrative was crammed with repetitive vernacular the lengthy page count would have been inherently more irritating. So, for the most part the sheer conviction and determination of his testimony kept me engaged, as I was drawn into the violent miasma of his day to day life and experiences.

Although, we only experience other characters in the book through this one person testimony, the characterisation throughout shone with clarity. His cohorts of Curt and Ki added a richness and texture to the story, and between them brought out the strengths and fatal weaknesses of our narrator, as they became inextricably bound together as they strive to overcome what seems like a hopeless fait accompli. There is also an unremitting and authentic portrayal of their desire to extricate themselves from their shared experiences in the deprived area they inhabit, and the level of loyalty they display to each other, though clearly being subject to the manipulation and malevolence of others throughout.

To be fair, I admired this interesting and fairly audacious debut in the fact that Mahmood takes a risk with the narrative and structure. I thought that for the most part it gave a realistic portrayal of the lives of its characters, although for me personally the jury is still out so to speak on the final revelation of our narrator’s testimony, but still worth a recommendation for the bravery of its intention.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)

 

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