‘Only We Know’ by Simon Packham

*This review will contain spoilers!*

‘Only We Know’ is a book revolving around a secret. When we join Lauren, our protagonist, she’s preparing for her first day at her new school, where she’s moved because of something mysterious in her past. Her sister, Tilda, is irritated that they’ve had to move, because she’s left all of her friends. Lauren’s parents are both paranoid about her settling in, telling her to fly under the radar and not to draw any attention to herself.
Based off of the blurb:

‘What is the secret of Lauren’s past?

Lauren’s family have moved house very suddenly, and she and her sister Tilda have to go to a new school. Lauren’s determined to reinvent herself, but she’s panic-stricken when she sees Harry, who she knew a few years ago. Luckily Harry doesn’t recognise her, and she knows she has to make sure it stays like that. 

Lauren, unlike Tilda, settles in well. She makes friends, is helping to organise the school fashion show, and she has boys asking her out. But just as her life finally seems to be looking up she starts receiving macabre packages. When she gets a message: ‘Isn’t it time your new friends knew all about you?’ she has to admit that someone knows her secret. But who – and what should she do?’  

I was expecting a lot more. I thought that the plot would kick in pretty instantly, that the menacing notes would be left more frequently, and that Lauren would receive multiple packages, terrifying her and sending a shiver up my spine. I thought it was going to be a thriller, and I thought it was brilliant that it had such a contemporary cover – something really genre-defying, something brave and unique.
That was not what I got in ‘Only We Know’. Lauren meets Harry quite early on, but he doesn’t know who she is, so that tension is dissipated very quickly. Then the main plot doesn’t kick in until page 150, which is ridiculous in a book that is under 250 pages. There’s a lot of babbling, a lot of teenage melodrama, and a lot of regular days at school that get dragged out under the pretense of plot development. The note that is quoted on the back is never actually sent, and I do hate it when that’s the case – why put something on the blurb if it’s not actually included in the story?
You can tell that this book is written by an older man, because it doesn’t sound like a teenage girl at all. Sometimes I find authors write across age gaps convincingly, and – more rarely – that they can believably craft a protagonist from the opposite gender, but that didn’t happen in this situation. The metaphors and similes used were terrible at best (‘like a tortoise on tranquilisers’, ‘ever tried explaining the rules of badminton to a horse?’ and ‘like a vegetarian on a school outing to the abattoir’ being the most memorably bad examples) and it just didn’t sound like a teenage voice. Combine this with the fact that ParentPay was dropped in, as well as how realistic the parents’ voices were… You can tell this is written from a mature author.
As well as using pretty bad imagery throughout, I really disliked how short and disconnected the chapters were. Some of the chapter breaks came in what really should have been the middle of a scene, and some of the chapter breaks made the content of the chapters completely irrelevant and easily removable. If your book is less than 300 pages and you have nearly 40 chapters? That’s a bit of an issue for me, so I also wasn’t enjoying that structural point.
Talking of the big reveal? Well, let’s take a quote directly from the book, during a conversation between Lauren and her student guide, Katherine:

“Katherine, why don’t you stay and finish your book?”

“It’s completely predictable anyway. And the main character’s so shallow I feel like slapping her.”

The big reveal was a ‘shock’ that I saw coming from about the fifth chapter. Lauren’s secret is that she’s transgender, and was born as Luke. It’s not a big surprise, because the hints are barely hidden throughout – comments on the big feet, on how tall she is, on her nether regions – but it just kind of made me feel disappointed. Using someone being transgender as your big shocking reveal is quite disgusting, and just seems to be capitalising upon the lives that many people have as their reality. I thought exactly the same thing about a certain popular TV show that many the same choice a couple of months back – not naming any names, but you’ll probably know which one – and I still dislike it as a narrative choice.
I understand it if it’s not revealed in such a dramatic way. If you actually get the character sitting down with their friend and explaining the change they’ve been through, how it affected them and what it means. But the fact that Lauren’s photograph is projected on to the wall at the fashion show, along with the picture of Luke – it’s all a bit too over the top, and it feels like cashing in.
I do wonder if I might have enjoyed the book more if I hadn’t seen it coming, but it was just so eye-rollingly obvious that I can’t see how other people didn’t see it from a mile away. It definitely feels less like a YA novel and more like it would appeal to younger people, just because of how the characters are crafted and how thinly veiled the clues are.
I did like Lauren’s sentiment at the end of the novel: ‘I do know how lucky I am. What are a few nasty comments when you’ve got good friends? It’s a small price to pay for finally being yourself. Because there are some places where being yourself comes with a prison sentence – or worse.’ but other than that one quote she’s a bit of a hateful character throughout. Despite the fact that she had no friends at her previous school, she takes her new friends for granted, and she’s a terrible snob. Her first impression of Katherine? ‘The thought that she could have anything to do with her royal deliciousness was enough to make me crack a smile.’ For someone who has such a complex back story and has such a history of experiencing judgement, you think she’d be a nicer person. As well as this, she doesn’t seem to sympathise with Tilda, who is struggling to fit in at school, in the slightest. Tilda is actually the one who has been blackmailing Lauren, and I could completely understand where she was coming from – yes, she went about it a terrible way, but because her parents were ignoring her and she was also struggling to come to terms with the move it was reasonable that she acted out in some way, shape or form. I try not to rate books on the likability of their characters, but this just isn’t realistic characterisation – if all you’ve experienced is bullying, you’re hyper-aware of the emotions of the people you care about, and you wouldn’t normally be so dismissive when someone is being nice to you on your first day at a new school.
The reaction of the students at the school to Lauren is quite unrealistic. I hate to say it, really I do, because I do support tolerance and acceptance of all: in a secondary school environment, if someone announces that they used to be the opposite gender it will be met with shock, disbelief and ridicule – even if it is the twenty-first century, teenagers (or, at least, the majority of the teenagers that I’ve interacted with in my life) are not that accepting. For everyone to flood the stage and congratulate Lauren instantly? It’s just not feasible. I wish that it was, but it feels a bit too fairy tale ending for me. Following that up with an eight month later epilogue feels like an easy escape, allowing you to avoid exploring the difficult issues and conversations that would crop up in the coming days and weeks.
Talking of the epilogue, the decision of the author to make Lauren get together with Conor – the boy who had been nothing but sexist and creepy towards her for the entire rest of the novel – was a bit ridiculous. Lauren justifies it, because ‘I should know better than anyone that first appearances can sometimes be deceptive’, but it’s not really first appearances, because he’d been being a tool throughout the entire first three months of her being at school with him. She goes to a party, and he’s graffiting family photos in a spare bedroom, and when she tries to leave he propositions her and makes her really uncomfortable. I get that characters can change, but doing it off of the page and expecting it to be believable… That’s just not right. It just seems like it’s establishing the fact that no matter what you say to women, you’ll get the girl eventually, because that’s your right as a man.
The ending was rushed, the secret wasn’t very well concealed and the entire novel was very predictable, so I didn’t think much of this one. I’d never heard of Simon Packham before, despite the fact that he’s already published multiple novels, but I think I’m going to avoid them – this was definitely the kind of LGBTQIA literature that I’d rather avoid, thank you very much.