Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Review: Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Tessa is sixteen, and has just found out that the leukaemia she has been fighting for four years is terminal. She doesn't have long left. With the help of her best friend Zoe, she sets on completing the list of things she wants to do before she dies. But these things are far from sentimental, including sex, drugs, and breaking the law. At first Zoe is enthusiastic about helping Tessa out, but when she discovers she is pregnant she finds it frustrating having to put her own life on hold for Tessa.

One day Tessa meets Adam, her next door neighbour, who is looking after his unstable mother since his father passed away. Together they form an inseparable bond and Tessa is able to cross 'fall in love' off her list. Part of what makes Tessa's story so heartbreaking is that she isn't afraid of dying, she just wishes she had more time, especially since meeting Adam: "I don't want to be dead," she says at one point, "I haven't been loved this way for long enough." She also desperately wants to meet Zoe's baby, but knows she'll die before the baby arrives.

Despite the very poignant subject, Downham manages to refrain from being overly sentimental. Tessa is far from perfect - she can be selfish, rude, and often pushes people away, just like any normal teenager. The story is told in first person and Tessa talks about everything in a very matter-of-fact way. Her thoughts on death are revealed through the descriptions of everyday things she encounters, such as her reaction to a dead bird that Adam and her brother Cal help to bury, and a hotel room she stayed in with her family when she was much younger, which has since been renovated and her name is no longer written on the inside of the wardrobe. She is afraid of being forgotten. 

There is also a lot of description of unpleasant things, which most stories of this kind would avoid for the purpose of sentimentality. The hospital visits are described with simple clarity, and in the last few pages as Tessa is passing away, Adam and Cal talk about hearing the sound of the fluid rattling in her lungs. There is no beauty in Tessa's death, but in the relationships she forms with those around her, who she has to leave behind. Adam's devotion to her, her parents' differing ways of coping, and her little brother Cal's attempts at coming to terms with her death - all of these are written very realistically, with the characters getting frustrated with each other and with Tessa, wishing they could move on with their own lives, and feeling guilty that they couldn't do more to help. 

Overall, I felt that this book was brilliantly written. It is difficult to write about such an unhappy subject without turning to sentimentality and doom and gloom, but the voice of Tessa is very genuine and at times she makes jokes and even forgets that she is ill. The final few chapters are especially well-written, and Downham tackles the dilemma of writing about a character dying in the first person very effectively. I found it difficult to put this book down, and the story stayed with me for a few days after I'd finished reading it. 

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