Title: Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook
Release date: January 29th 2013 by HarperTeen
Age group: Young adult
Grade rate: B+
When the whole world is after you, sometimes it seems like you can't run fast enough.
Will: Maybe I'm too late. Maybe Zoe's dad stole all her fifteen years and taught her to be scared. I'll undo it. Help her learn to be strong again, and brave. Not that I'm any kind of example, but we can learn together.
Zoe: Maybe it'll take Will years to come to terms with being abandoned. Maybe it'll take forever. I'll stay with him no matter how long it takes to prove that people don't always leave, don't always give up on you.
When I picked up Nobody But Us, it had been months since I'd read a really solid contemporary book. I started reading it on a whim (and on the basis of the beautiful cover), and it took me completely by surprise. It just goes to show how a lack of expectation can really help you make the most of a book.
The first thing I have to mention is how absolutely stunning the writing in this book was. Nobody But Us is astonishingly well-written. I wasn't sure if I liked Will's narrative style to begin with, but it suits him. Let no-one ever tell you that YA is full of mediocrity ever again, because Kristin Halbrook shows her that when you look beyond the usual suspects, you really can find some unexpected treasures.
Zoe is just fifteen, but when she's forced to choose between her abusive father and the boyfriend she trusts with her life, there's no hesitation. I loved that Halbrook was unafraid of making her female lead pragmatic as well as head over heels in love with a boy. The boy in question, Will, is heroic to the last, mistreated by the system and desperate to get away; they're the kind of characters who work best when they're together, and you can just feel their commitment to each other as you read.
Zoe and Will are trying to escape a cruel reality of abuse and abandonment, little hope and low expectations. This is something I see a lot across the pond in UKYA, but seeing it in an American setting made the idea seem fresh and new. This book deals with tough themes, like identity and loss of innocence, so of course there are causalities within its pages; as Zoe and Will roll up to Las Vegas, the world is their oyster, but by the time they realize they need to get out, they're already in too deep. Things go wrong and they make mistakes (and when I say mistakes, I mean seriously life-altering, jail-bound decisions that show the true meaning of consequences in a genre that sometimes seems to think consequences don't actually exist). Life rarely goes according to anyone's plan, and Zoe and Will are no exception, despite their aching determination to make things right.
That said, Zoe and Will are not all sweetness and light. Zoe may be naive but it's no excuse for her failure to see the dangers of Will's short fuse and propensity for violence. He wants to look after her, and his past haunts him, but some readers may be put off by the obvious signs that their relationship may not get the happily ever after its participants crave.
Turning to crime is ultimately their downfall, but the truly saddening thing about Zoe and Will's story is the fact that they have never, ever had anyone else to stand up for them. Their story isn't a romance, it's a tragedy. They run away from their problems because they have no other choice, but the realization that this kind of fate awaits a lot of people who age out of the system will not sit well with any readers who are faint of heart or narrow of mind.
The realism of Nobody But Us is seen in that it reads like a dream - but like all dreams, someone eventually has to wake up. The ending of the book is horrific. It's utterly heart-breaking, soul-destroying even, but it works. It's where the book should go, even if as a reader you really don't want it to.
Nobody But Us is the kind of off-the-beaten track contemporary novel everyone needs to read once in a while. It dispenses with the tropes and clichés that threaten to overrun the young adult shelf and focuses on telling a story with clarity, purpose and strong storytelling instead. It's a tough read, but you certainly won't forget it.