Lara’s life is far from perfect, but being an upbeat kind of person she saves her venting for her diary. It’s the only place she can let out her true feelings about the family dramas and hideous bullying she has to face every day. And then a shining light comes out of the darkness – the new, young and MALE teacher, Mr Jagger. The one person who takes Lara seriously and notices her potential. The one person who is kind to her. The one person who she falls madly and hopelessly in love with. The one person who can never love her back…can he?
No one can deny that Rachel McIntyre has chosen a controversial topic for her first novel Me & Mr J, published by Electric Monkey, and some people may find it uncomfortable reading. Lara – intelligent, not unattractive but frustrated and worn down by constant vicious bullying and the gradual breakdown of her parents’ relationship – is immediately drawn to young maternity-cover English teacher Ben Jagger. Mr Jagger, he admits to the students, is fresh out of teacher training and is eager to make a difference to a girl he realises has a lot of potential with the right encouragement. There was a case in the news not too long ago of a teenage girl who ran away with her teacher, apparently of her own volition, and I recalled that as I sped through this story. There’s no suggestion that Rachel was writing with that particular case in mind but I found it fascinating to read the story complete from Lara’s besotted point of view, with no judgement from parents, other responsible adults, or the deliberately sensationalising commentary of the media involved.
Me & Mr J is very much a book of two halves. Although Mr J himself appears relatively early on, the first half of the book is dominated by Lara’s accounts of the horrific bullying she endures at the hands of rich b*tch Molly, unintelligent Mikaela and Sam Short, Molly’s boyfriend from the neighbouring boys’ school who declares war after Lara makes a retaliatory jibe about his height. They wage a campaign in person, with whispered remarks, isolation and then increasingly through mobiles phones and social media. Rachel is a teacher, and as someone who did the same for nearly ten years, the appalling behaviour of these three seemed worryingly plausible. I attended an all-girls school myself, although selective rather than private, and definitely recognised some of the scenarios, although I don’t recall anything in my own school days or career quite so focussed or long-running.
I thought Lara’s narrative voice also seemed very authentic – Rachel McIntyre has her use a conversational, chatty style, dropping in slang, shortening sentences and even dropping in the odd French word. This is something I vividly remember doing with my girls’-school mates; we thought it was very sophisticated at the time. I’m not sure if many comprehensive school kids would do the same now, or if perhaps a couple of the phrases Lara uses are a bit dated, but it rang true for me, and I found myself gripped, with an increasing feeling of dread, as Lara looks for a lifeline to distract her from the bad things in her life.
Enter Mr J. After an onslaught of attention from pretty much every girl in every one of his classed (also rings 100% true!), he singles out Lara as having a lot of academic potential as well as realising she’s covering up the bullying she’s experiencing. He’s a glowing beacon in the darkness and she drawn towards this kindness and positivity like a moth to flame. Lara takes advantage of his idea to hold a talent show to spend as much time with him as possible, all the while daydreaming and analysing every word, look or action he makes. She never imagines he might return her feelings, but an incident after the talent show final makes her wonder if there might be something more there. We don’t hear from Ben to discover his point of view, but Lara’s diary entries make it clear that she’s an active partner in their growing intimacy, and this is what I think some people may find difficult to read.
While the framework of the novel does make sure we know what the law around this scenario is, and discusses the idea of misuse of power dynamics, I really appreciated the way that Lara – and the reader – isn’t patronised by the way the central relationship is portrayed. Speak to 15 and 16 years olds and you’ll soon discover they know their own minds and have a lot of strongly held views. This isn’t to say people of any age can’t be influenced by pressure of all sorts, deliberately, unconsciously or otherwise, but perhaps we should recognise that it’s possible for something to feel completely right, even though it is wrong. It’s so important to be able to explore grey areas; YA literature is already doing that well, and this is a brilliant addition to that tradition.
I won’t give away what happens at the end – I’d like you to read Me & Mr J and find out for yourself – but I’ll just finish by commending Rachel McIntyre on having the confidence to explore an area that is still taboo and the subject of tabloid scandal. I’d love to know what she has in store for us next.
Me & Mr J by Rachel McIntyre is out now in paperback from Electric Monkey, at £7.99
Thank you to Electric Monkey for providing an review copy.