Book Review: You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames, 2013)


A one-sitting wallop of a novella by Jonathan Ames.

You Were Never Really Here is a breathless, noirish revenge thriller which reads like a distillation of Raymond Chandler and Lee Child. Rain, blood, broken bones, and despair, in less than a hundred pages!

The main character Joe is a middle-aged man with extreme psychological scars. He was horrifically beaten as a child by his father, and then went on to see appalling things both while serving as a Marine in the First Gulf War and then while working on an FBI anti-sex-trafficking task force. After a mental breakdown led him to go completely off the grid for a few years, he is now an untraceable independent contractor, hired out via a middle-man to break girls out of the sex trade. On these jobs he tends to favour his father’s domestic weapon of choice – a hammer.

His latest assignment is to rescue the thirteen-year-old daughter of a New York State Senator from a high-end Manhattan brothel. It seems straightforward but complications quickly rear their ugly heads.

As you can maybe tell, this is a bleak and nasty read, but it’s also fantastically gripping. Ames is a skilled writer who gets Joe’s pain and suicidal self-loathing across so well with very few words, as well as the seedy damp greyness of New York City. The violence is kinetic, staccato and wince-inducing. As mentioned above, the off-the-grid loner trope calls to mind Lee Child’s Jack Reacher – though Ames’s prose is better than Child’s – and the PI sleaze aspect is Chandler with a modern polish.

My one criticism is that I do wish it was either a bit longer or had a more conclusive ending, as it finishes on a rather frustrating cliffhanger. Perhaps Joe will return?

Apparently a film version starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Lynne Ramsay (both of whom I love) is due to be released next year, and I’m excited to see whether it can equal the white-knuckle pace and energy of the book. I’ll also look forward to checking out the other titles in this superb new Pushkin Vertigo crime imprint.


Pushkin Vertigo | 2016 | 96p | Paperback | Buy here


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