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Before I Die Hardcover – 5 Jul 2007
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Novels for young teenagers do not usually feature drugs and casual
sex within the first 20-odd pages. But most books for teenagers will not
leave an adult reader's eyes so blurry with tears that it's hard to see the
final chapters. Jenny Downham's extraordinary first novel does both.
-- Sunday Times Culture Magazine (10/6/07)
An intensely moving and uncompromisingly honest story told in the words of a 16-year-old girl who is dying of leukaemia.See all Product description
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The horrible nature of Tessa's illness coupled with her family troubles probably explains why, for the first part of the book, she is a rather difficult character. I have to confess that, though I felt great compassion for her, I found her hard to like to begin with, as she progressed from sullen apathy (including being quite unpleasant to her family) to - urged on by best friend and local 'bad girl' Zoey - compiling a list of things she must do before death, and racing around to do them in a mood of out-of-control hysteria. This for me was the book's weakest section. I'm sure that Downham is right and that adolescents without anything to lose might become self-destructive and up for anything. But Tessa is an intelligent girl, one who loves Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, who (like Puccini's Mimì) has an affinity with nature and a way with words. Would someone this sensitive really come up with a list that was so banal, largely consisting of taking drugs, sex-without-love, shoplifting, illegal driving and so forth? And would she, even if she was understandably angry at her fate, be so oblivious to the feelings of family and friends? It's not as though the list seems to bring Tessa any happiness either - particularly the day of 'saying yes to everything' where other than a bit of nice shopping she makes some useless purchases (horrible meat from a market stall among them) and jumps in a river, giving herself an infection. And the trouble also with this section is that Zoey seems so much a stereotype of the 'wild girl' (lots of drugs and underage sex) that it's hard to see how she and the sensitive and relatively innocent Tessa (who's never even kissed a boy at the start of the book) are so close. I felt we needed a bit more back story to understand the friendship of these two. I also wonder whether, bearing in mind her age (16, an age at which many teenagers are religious) Tessa would have been so dismissive of the idea of an afterlife, though I can understand her not feeling at all happy about God after all her suffering.
And then Adam - literally the boy next door - comes into Tessa's life (he's been a vague presence in fact through the earlier stages of the book) and the novel suddenly goes from being a well-written but rather depressing story of a dying adolescent in despair to something much subtler, very thoughtful and absolutely beautiful. I thought that the descriptions of Adam and Tessa's falling in love, their love-making (and this is not easy to write about) and Adam's determination to 'come to the edge' with Tessa in her final months were absolutely superb - this really was on a level with tragic opera. Downham's language also moves onto a whole new level, becoming wonderfully poetic and full of imagery, be it in descriptions of Tessa's garden, a glass ornament on a shelf, the sensation of driving along in a thunderstorm or the taste of kiwi fruit. The Zoey situation gets more interesting too as Zoey has to cope with an unplanned pregnancy. And we learn more, and more interesting things about Tessa's family past, and why her mother left home shortly before Tessa was diagnosed. I was completely hooked from Adam's first kiss with Tessa onwards.
The final section of the book is, inevitably, heartbreaking as Tessa finally stops responding to treatment and realizes that her death is imminent (no spoilers, we know from the start of the book that she's doomed, just as with Verdi and Puccini's heroines). But Downham keeps the writing from being unbearably sad both by her wonderful portrayal of Adam's courage and Tessa's parents' loyalty (is there a hint that Tessa's death will bring them back together?) and through her skilful and poetic evocation of what it might be like to be drifting away into death - the final chapters, as Tessa gradually loses consciousness and begins to drift between reality and her memories, are beautifully written, almost like poetry. Whatever my misgivings about the first part of this book, Downham shows in its later sections how even unbearably sad stories can also be beautiful and in a strange way curiously uplifting. The book may not all be of the same quality, but at its best it is remarkable, and I look forward to revisiting this author's work.
Four and a half stars.
Tessa is 16, has leukaemia and is terminally ill so she decides to write a list of all the things she wants to do before she dies. You know this because you've read the blurb which half enticed you to check out people's actual opinions on this book and here's mine - before YOU die, you must read this book.
What the blurb doesn't tell you is this: This book isn't about Tessa. Not really. She's just telling you the story. This book is about taking risks, making choices and the family we leave behind. It tackles enormous issues when faced with death, more so than the actual dying part, and it leaves you to decide what it really is to be alive. Not to be dying; to be living. Rather than telling you to feel sorry for the dying and smacking you in the face with all of that, this book let me understand (similar to My Sisters Keeper by Picoult) that there's more to it than that.
I read the blurb, the boyfriend on the list thing, and I fully expected a really immature read with a lot of sad, gut wrenching narrative. Which, given that we're dealing with a teenage girl with leukaemia, would be what I'd signed up for. And some of it is just that. But this book is much, much more. It's intelligent. Most books of this nature don't ask many difficult questions. They usually deal with how the patient is doing, how the family are coping but they don't often dare to ask controversial questions.
"Live fast, die young, have a good looking corpse!"
This one does. I was pleasantly surprised and really engaged from the first chapter when questions of religion were tackled. It's subtle, but it's there. The subtlety is what impressed me most. I began to question what religion, and God, means to a person when they're dying. But more so, to a child. I could write for days on just how a few simple passages really resonated with me, but the point I'm trying to make is that this book made me think. And I loved that. What also resonated with me was the cancer-related humour. This, in a real world, situation would genuinely shock me if I heard people mocking a 16 year girl with leukaemia about her eventually death. But Tessa, her friends and her family don't take cancer seriously. They're hilarious actually. This is so refreshing and has really stuck with me.
A character who stuck with me is Tessa's little brother Cal. He is hilarious. I love how Jenny Downham has depicted a child of his age altering from being terrified of his sister dying which we see flickers of, to joking about when she's dead because he wants to go on holiday! He's such a fantastic character and I love the teamwork that him and Tessa show when they scheme against their parents.
Religion wasn't the only risk I felt this author took. And neither was daring to mock cancer. I adored her take on risks and chance. She used Tessa as a fantastic voice to encourage the reader to see that dying has no consequences. That Tessa takes risks because she has nothing to lose in her eyes. This is a thought that's never occurred to me when I think about terminal illness or even just dying as a whole.
The problem I had with this book though and the reason for my four stars was Tessa. I didn't find her to be likeable at all, and I wasn't especially connected to her and her story. I love the message and I love how it's presented to the reader, but I just couldn't connect with Tessa. Or any of the key characters to be honest. Aside from Cal, I didn't even like any of them. So as much as I do recommend you read this, don't expect to fall in love with the characters like you might do with similar books of the genre.
This is ultimately a book about the luck of the draw. Some people are lucky to have clear skin, to be curvy in the right places, to naturally be gorgeous, athletic or intelligent. Genetics play a part, but nature is a deciding factor and we all roll the dice. Jenny Downham asks questions of us through Tessa and makes us think. I'm so impressed with the delicacy but also the stark bluntness of this book - a funny, thoughtful book that should be on your bucket list. I love a book that makes me question and challenge what I think. I think you will too.
I don't think this is particularly aimed at young people, it has a message and meaning for everyone.
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