A verse novel that alternates between two very different voices of two narrators that have been brought together via the same crime, but from very different backgrounds. Jess is in trouble quite a lot- caught shoplifting, third offence, she is sent on a reparation scheme to 'give back to society'. Nicu is caught once, but perhaps due to him being a recent Romanian immigrant, seems to find himself on the same scheme. They form an unlikely bond, one that doesn't quite spill over into school immediately, but one that makes Jess re-think what she wants from friendship. It makes he reassess who she is, why she behaves how she does and surrounds herself with toxic people.
There are no chapter headings, but it's always easy to tell who's narrating- one, because it's so well written, and two because the voices are so distinctive. Not only because Nicu's broken English is quickly identifiable, but because the characters' personalities are very evident from what they say and think. The reader gets such an instantaneous, illuminating glimpse into these teens' heads. Nicu is fun loving, romantic, goofy and keen to please. He just wants to make friends, be liked and get people to smile back at him. He knows that as a Romanian in England the deck is stacked against him. It's quite heartbreaking how low he's set the bar for acceptance. He's like a beaten up little puppy that still wants to see good in everyone. Jess is literally the opposite. Cynical, angry, powerless; she lives with her doormat mum and her abusive stepdad and feels complicit in her mother's abuse as she is unable to stop it. Jess doesn't trust anybody; her dad left her, her brother left her. She is afraid to show any kind of vulnerability or weakness. It's fairly plain to see what Vile Terry's ling term goals are for Jess. She sees no realistic future for herself so despite her cocky attitude, her self esteem is dangerously low.
Though bullying, prejudice and small-town Brexit-based hatred are prominent themes throughout, it remains a story about friendship. Nicu is head over heels for Jess pretty much on first sight, but it's a slow burning relationship that has to overcome trust issues, secrecy and the vile attitudes of Jess' 'friends' and stepdad. It's hard to watch Nicu be slandered and bullied- he stays so calm and dignified while Jess stays silent. It's interesting to see how social influence, power and acceptance shifts, changing the characters as it settles.
Through their friendship, though support and trust in one another, each character grows in confidence and self worth. Naturally, it's too good to last. Tragic, somewhat inevitable bad decision is made, one of those sorts of wrong place, wrong time, unfair little life wreckers that you cannot win either way. It's an emotional narrative, full of injustice and powerlessness, where the reader just has to wonder why we spend such time and effort being assholes to one another. It's short, bittersweet and thoroughly captivating- a modern tragedy of a beautiful friendship that society just refuses to allow.