We Are Not Like Them is the story of childhood friends Riley and Jen. Now in their 30’s, and on very different life trajectories; Riley an ambitious journalist and Jen, married to a police officer and a homemaker. They find their relationship pushed to the very edge when Jen’s husband is involved in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager. Their friendship has always been uncomplicated, its never mattered to them that Riley is Black and Jen is White, now for the first time in their lives they find themselves on opposite sides and questioning their entire relationship.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The prologue alone was a vortex that sucked me in and I couldn’t stop reading it until the very last sentence. There are elements of the book that are controversial and elements that are triggering. The USP of this story is that it has two authors, Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, and each wrote alternate chapters giving Riley and Jen their unique voices and perspectives. Riley feels like the heroine of the piece and Jen, at best naive albeit loyal and at worst, unable to see her own privilege.
There are characters I certainly didn’t get along with. Kevin, Jens husband has a very unsympathetic family, especially his father and brother Matt, both lifelong police officers and the main voices in the story defending the police and their actions. Kevin, whilst by no means a character I related too, was interesting as he represented the dichotomy between the average police officer and the institution of policing. As right as it is for individual police officers to be held to account for their actions, police brutality and violence is a systemic problem. Officers might believe that they “did their duty” but they are conditioned to believe that and the failure in their training is due to the structural racism that exists within policing and the prison system. Those failures are not addressed in this book, and that’s fine, because this story is about a relationship that’s avoided conversations about race and now finds itself torn apart precisely due to it.
I thought it was interesting that Jen had a sublot of being pregnant, it almost coerced the reader (and Riley) to feel and behave a certain way toward her. There are other parts of the story, which I won’t go into for fear of spoiling it, that I felt were used to humanise Jen possibly more than she deserved. I would have preferred more accountability from her, more remorse for not always being the greatest friend. Even towards the end I don’t think she understood the level of privilege she had as a white women in comparison to her black best friend. I felt there were points in Riley’s story that really upset me. For example, as a black reporter she was instantly asked to cover the shooting and to lead on the subsequent media circus surrounding it. She was considered an insider and therefore easier for her to get access to the family. In the real world I thought how triggering this might be for a reporter. On the one hand, it’s one of the very few opportunities offered to a Black reporter on the other having to emotionally compartmentalise the realities of being a black person in America, the very real trauma of police violence and the consequences it has on her own relationships, not only with Jen but her family, it felt entirely insensitive bordering on exploitative.
I really enjoyed the split narrative and the private window it gave us into the two women’s lives. Their recollections of the same memories through their very different lenses were perceptive of their relationship. How they privately viewed each other’s success and opportunities was interesting and gave the reader some insight as to why Riley didn’t always feel comfortable speaking to Jen about race. Riley and Jen have very different relationships with their families and again I wondered why Jen was given the more sympathetic background. An absent father, young, single and uninterested mother and no siblings, it felt like the authors went to pains to make us empathise with her character.
Riley learns about the history of her family and some truly disturbing events that they suppressed in order to protect themselves. The juxtaposition of the past and the present highlighted the threat of violence that people from the black community continue to live with and the trauma that they carry with them. Their mistrust and fear of certain institutions, like the police, is borne from very real experiences and threats, much of which people still remember. “Every fibre in my body feels flush with adrenaline, a response to a threat I can’t quite pinpoint, thinking about all the ways my brother and dad are unsafe in this world. But deeper than that, bone-deep, there’s a dark hum, pain like a shadow, the ancestral trauma that lives in me”
Fundamentally this story is about friendship, and I thought it spoke volumes about their friendship that Riley had a Black friend who she felt more comfortable being herself around. Even though Riley and Jen have a shared history, from infancy, it’s heart-breaking that Riley from a relatively young age learnt to filter her experiences from Jen. For me, this didn’t take away from their friendship, it added a dimension, of love and protection, but one that Riley carried on her own. After the shooting they are no longer able to skate around race and are forced to face each other, and their previous experiences, with complete honesty. I really related to the way the authors built up to this, the fractured communication, and the heartfelt anxiety on both parts.
Given how much this book covers I was really impressed that it was just over 300 pages. There’s a lot to digest so I was glad that it wasn’t drawn out. The book left me with a lot to think about, including my own relationships and the value of open and honest conversations. There are parts of the book that are incredibly sad, but they are dealt with sensitively and compassionately. I devoured this book in a single sitting because I was so drawn into it, in hindsight, and when I do reread it, I want to give myself more time to appreciate the complexities of each part and the nuances of the story.
If you enjoyed The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet or Love After Love by Ingrid Persuad then I think you will probably also enjoy this.
We Are Not Like Them by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza
Genre and themes: Political Fiction, Race, Women’s Literary Fiction, Literary Fiction.
Published by Harper Collins on the 14th of October 2021
Thank you to @HQstories and @Tandemcollectiveuk for my gifted copy