Before I Die
by Jenny Downham
Publisher: David Fickling Books, a division of Random House Children's Books
Following on from the young adult market ‘front line’ interview last week with Nikki Heath, we take a view from the other side this week, and meet author Jenny Downham.
Today I’ll review her novel "Before I Die", and on Wednesday in Part One of the interview we discuss its research, writing and publication. In Part Two on Friday, Jenny shares her experience of winning prizes, an inspiring method of overcoming writer’s block, her recommended reading for young adults/ authors and her ten top tips which writers of all genres can use.
Managing to be both devastatingly sad and life-affirmingly positive, Before I Die is the story of sixteen-year-old Tessa, diagnosed with leukemia trying desperately to fit a lifetime of experiences into her remaining few weeks.
In such stories we often want the impossible. The character must defy the odds, find a miracle cure and survive. In this story, the reader shares Tessa’s reality in knowing she cannot avoid the outcome. She will die; it is only a question of when. And this drives the narrative at a cracking pace.
The reader accompanies Tessa in her final weeks, one step ahead of the rest of her family experiencing the typical stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining (her “to do before I die list” provides the structure of the novel), depression and acceptance.
Eleven year old Cal is desperate to impress anyone who’ll pay him attention with magic tricks, especially their Mother who is back living at home again, and Tessa’s Father who has stopped work to care for Tessa but struggles to keep her behaviour and attitude within normal boundaries in an abnormal situation. Each of the five main characters serves to help the reader better understand Tessa, to see her from different perspectives, though the story is told from her own viewpoint. The characters each develop in different ways, surprising Tessa at times, and the readers at others. We see Tessa as defined by her relationships to the other characters. And at the end of the novel, we see, then hear each of them, drifting in and out of Tessa’s consciousness as she lies in bed, as if they are standing on a blacked out stage, spotlighted in turn, as individuals or groups, to comment over the last pages, until we see Tessa’s final memories and hear her final thoughts:
“Let them all go”
“All gathering towards this one.”
Concretely we are left with the hopes and instructions she shared on notes for her friends and family, the future plans of her boyfriend Adam and the promise of the unblemished life of her best friend’s unborn baby. But more powerfully, we feel an immense determination that we want to make the most of every hot chocolate shared with a friend, or trip to the zoo. But it is not melodramatic, because it rings absolutely true. And above all, it says, make the most of your relationships. It’s all about relationships. It’s only what connects you to the people you love “all so different and equally unimportant” that means anything in the grand scheme of things.
Downham successfully writes with simplicity and clarity on complex themes. Teen love, sex, death; the loss of a parent, roles, choices and responsibilities; society’s expectations and constraints.
Her settings subtly underline the storylines; the teen pregnancy is revealed in the B&B's former “family room” which has been renovated since Tess had stayed there, and is now furnished with a four-poster for honeymooners, changed, just as Tessa’s family structure had changed. Yet a young family passes by outside the window and Tess speculates on the child’s name. The fragile balance between the past, present and future is neatly presented, almost Scrooge-like, in a bedroom.
She employs all the reader’s senses without making it obvious until you look for it: ... "opened the wardrobe. I startle the coathangers and they chink together. The smell of damp wood fills me.”
She imparts motherly wisdom to her teen audience without trying to, “you want some sweet things Tess, but be careful. Other people can’t always give you what you want.”
Grief, like so many other things in today’s complex world, can't be reduced to a neat plan with absolute definitions, goals, and instructions. But to deal with it, Tessa starts a to-do list, and, released from the constraints of 'normal' life, it contains all the things she wants before she dies, some reasonable, some risky, some rebellious. Some will make you want to be angry with her, dislike her, even give up on her. But she is so real you can’t. 327 pages of writing for teenagers which is pure genius. Go on, add it to the stack.
On Wednesday in Part One of the interview, Jenny Downham discusses her research, writing and publication.
Before I Die by Jenny Downham, edited by David Fickling and published by David Fickling Books, won the 2008 Branford Boase Award, which celebrates an outstanding debut novel for children over seven, and highlights the importance of the editor in nurturing new authors.
(see The Guardian for a Sept. 26th article by David Fickling, on slush pile avoidance)
Before I Die was also one of the final four in the shortlist for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. The prize is awarded for works of children's literature by British or Commonwealth authors, published in the UK during the preceding year. The award has been given annually since 1967, and is decided by a panel of authors and the review editor for The Guardian's children's books section. It may be compared with the American Newbery Medal.
Jenny Downham was an actress for many years before concentrating on her writing full-time. She lives in London with her two sons.
Before I Die is available here, and from all leading book retailers.