It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes you can pick up a book and know very quickly that it’s one that’s going to pack a punch and stay with you long after you finish the final page. With Danielle Jawando’s When Our Worlds Collided, it takes just three chapters for that feeling to kick in – enough time to meet and connect with each of the three teenagers at the heart of this story and witness the horrific and heartbreaking attack that will bind them together.
In her second novel, Jawando has written a powerful coming-of-age story about injustice, chance encounters and how the course of your life can change in a single moment. For Chantelle, Jackson and Marc, that moment comes when 14-year-old Shaq is stabbed outside of a busy shopping centre in Manchester, and these three teenagers from very different walks of life are unexpectedly brought together when they’re the only ones who stop to help.
In the days and weeks that follow, each of their lives are turned completely upside down and Chantelle, Jackson and Marc are left questioning the deep-rooted prejudice and racism that exists all around them. As each teen returns to their normal lives and faces their own struggles and injustices in a society and a system that’s stacked against them, they find themselves increasingly turning to each other for friendship and support as they realise that the choices they make now have the power to completely change their future.
I just kept thinking about how crazy it all was. Like with Shaq. How one moment, one instant, can change your whole world for ever.”
As the content warning on this book advises, When Our Worlds Collided covers a lot of upsetting and sensitive topics, including racism, violence and death, and it does so with the kind of raw, unflinching eye that Angie Thomas utilised to such phenomenal success with The Hate U Give. With her nuanced and empathetic prose, Jawando deftly brings to life the realities of what it’s like to grow up as a Black person in Britain today, with each character coming up against discrimination and racism daily, and in every part of their lives.
Jackson, who attends an elite private school, begins to see how sheltered his life has been as he awakens to the racial biases of his rich, predominantly white classmates in the wake of the stabbing, while Chantelle’s own upbringing and home life often leaves her facing prejudices no matter how hard she tries to prove herself to her school and her teachers. Marc, meanwhile, struggles to let anyone get close to him after surviving living with abusive parents and growing up in the care system.
With these three characters, Jawando explores everything from the intersectionality of class and race in Britain to the systemic racism still prevalent in our schools, media and justice system and she does so with a narrative that clearly manages to express all of the quiet anger and growing frustration that these characters are feeling on a daily basis. Chantelle, Marc and Jackson are all forced to endure racist comments, microaggressions and discriminatory behaviour from their teachers, their classmates and more, all while the media continues to publish biased and sensationalised headlines about Shaq’s stabbing, and his grieving community continues to be unfairly and unnecessarily targeted by the police.
It’s immediately clear when reading this book that Jawando has a knack for world-building and characterisation and, while there’s no denying that this is a hard-hitting, thought-provoking book in and of itself, it’s truly these characters that elevate this novel and keep drawing you back in. Jackson, Chantelle and Marc are all three-dimensional, fully-realised characters, yes, but crucially they also remain recognisably teenagers who are living a genuine teenage experience, even in the face of the huge trauma they witnessed and the injustices they face. All three are characters that so many readers will be able to see themselves in, and it goes a long way towards rooting this novel in reality, making a firm statement that while these characters may be fictional, their experiences are very much a reflection of reality.
Danielle Jawando caught the publishing world’s attention back in 2020 when her poignant and emotional debut And The Stars Were Burning Brightly was published to great acclaim, and When Our Worlds Collided proves that book was no fluke. Her latest novel isn’t perfect – it feels a bit overly long in the middle with a lull that leads to a bit of narrative unevenness and a quick, rushed final few chapters – but it is a book that everyone should read, young adults and adults alike.
From start to finish this is an evocative, immersive and well-balanced read with brilliant characters, important discussions and some much-needed moments of levity too. Most importantly, however, When Our Worlds Collided is a story you certainly won’t forget in a hurry.
When Our Worlds Collided is published by Simon & Schuster Children’s on 31 March 2022