YA review: Before I Die by Jenny Downham

h1 July 10th, 2007 by jules

Can I take a moment to tell you about an outstanding novel by a first-time YA author (I have no idea if this is the cover that will be chosen for the book’s late September publication here in the U.S., but I found it here at Amazon UK)? I received an advance reader’s copy of a novel entitled Before I Die by Jenny Downham. I’m sure that a whole slew of blogs were notified about this book and its marketing campaign. My curiosity was instantly piqued, as there is a “Dear Reader” note in the front of the proof, written by editor David Fickling. He calls this novel “literary gold dust”; says that David Fickling Books is publishing it zippy speedy quick by modern publishing standards (Fickling doesn’t think the public should be kept waiting any longer); urges us to read it; and writes that it’s “searing, unsentimental, and honest and at the same time almost shockingly affirming of life.” Oh, and rights to the book were very quickly sold in “no fewer than TEN languages, in less than two weeks.”

Allrighty then. Fickling’s excited about this book. And he does have a track record that is nothing to sneeze at. Honestly, though, I was thinking, nah, I don’t want to be reading the same book as every other kidlit blogger in America. I’m a fiercely independent reader. I don’t need this swaying. Well, then I read the first page and was immediately hooked. And then I found it damn near unputdownable. Really, I read this in record time myself, and — with two wee children in my life — I only have little windows of time for reading. I must have read it while driving or sleeping or, I dunno, maybe I actually never slept. I don’t remember. I just know that I devoured it (really, I devoured it in no time after first receiving it; I just held off on the review for a bit for a myriad of reasons).

Let me tell you about the premise: A sixteen-year-old British teen, Tessa, has leukemia and only a few months to live. She has a list of things she wants to do before she dies.

That’s it. Sound terribly interesting? No? I don’t blame you. Sounds like one of those Hallmark movies or an old-skool ABC AfterSchool Special, no? But, fear not. This is not one of those “Today” show let-Al-Roker-make-your-dreams-come-true, the-teen-cancer-victim-wants-to-meet-Justin-Timberlake stories. First on Tessa’s list, which you read about on page one: “I want to feel the weight of a boy on top of me.” She also wants to do drugs and go shoplifting and oh-so much more (“I mostly believe in chaos,” Tessa tells us. “If wishes came true, my bones wouldn’t ache as if all the space inside them is used up. There wouldn’t be a mist in front of my eyes that I can’t brush away . . . The universe might be random, but I can make something different happen”).

The novel is a revelation, let me tell ya. A quiet, little revelation (though if Fickling has his way, it won’t be quiet for long). It is infused with a biting, refreshing irreverence, and it’s very smart and terrifically funny in spots, too. It’s also, as Fickling points out in the introductory note in the advance proof, completely and entirely devoid of any overbearing sentimentality, which would have ruined it. Would have made it absolutely insufferable. But that never happens. Not once.

Tessa lives with her younger brother and father, her mother having skipped out on the family when Tessa was twelve. Her father is her primary caretaker throughout her illness — though her mother in her own flawed, heart-breakingly awkward ways tries to help — and he has given up his job to deal with his daughter’s cancer and tries in vain to nurse her back to health. Her intense, wild-child best friend, Zoey, who doles out zero zilch nada pity to Tessa, helps her accomplish the goals on her list — but soon has her own issues to deal with, often leaving Tessa in a lurch. Eventually, Tessa befriends and falls in love with her neighbor, Adam, who is taking care of his rather checked-out, grieving mother. All the while, Tessa is dealing with the devastating and unrelenting physical ravages of leukemia, sometimes finding moments of true hope and joy but mostly wondering what’s going to happen to her after she dies and taking note of the moments of her life she is going to miss — and the people in it (but, again, never with any weepy, mawkish undertones, which Downham could have so easily slipped into. At one point, Tessa says about her younger brother Cal, “I’m going to miss him so much it makes me want to hurt him”).

What I love about Downham is that she will be rolling right along with this straight-forward (yet always gripping) narrative and then slip in these transcendent moments of gorgeously stark, poetic prose (“Leukaemia is a progressive disease. I’m supposed to get weaker and weaker until I don’t care anymore. But I still care. When am I going to stop caring? I try to think of simple things — boiled potatoes, milk. But scary things come into my mind instead — empty trees, plates of dust. The bleached angle of a jaw bone”). And the book is infused with vivid imagery that packs an emotional whollop and makes you feel as if you are in Tessa’s head. This detailed imagery is one of the many qualities of Downham’s writing that keeps the book one of the real-est things you’ll ever read and keeps it from drifting into the makings of a Precious Moments figurine. After she finally accomplishes the first goal on her list — having had meaningless, emotionally-disconnected sex with a boy named Jake whom she meets in a club — Tessa sits with her back to him, blinking at her clothes:

When I was a kid, I used to ride on my dad’s shoulders. I was so small he had to hold my back with both hands to stop me tipping, and yet I was so high I could splash my hands through leaves. I could never tell Jake this. It wouldn’t make any difference to him. I don’t think words reach people. Maybe nothing does.

And the honesty. Downham writes with an unforgiving, bold-faced candor: “I blow smoke out into the air. Every time I inhale I can hear my lungs crackle. Maybe I’ve got TB. I hope so. All the best poets had TB; it’s a mark of sensibility. Cancer’s just humiliating.” And o! amen and hallelujah Downham does not try to provide any moral or religious commentary on any potential life-after-death for Tessa. In fact, when David Fickling says that this book is “shockingly affirming of life,” despite its subject matter and the inevitable ending, he is correct. And that is because Tessa truly fears she’ll simply be food for the flowers and thus breathes in every possible moment, despite her great anger, despite the overwhelming fear:

Cal says that humans are made from the nuclear ash of dead stars. He says that when I die, I’ll return to dust, glitter, rain. If that’s true, I want to be buried right here under this tree. Its roots will reach into the soft mess of my body and suck me dry. I’ll be re-formed as apple blossom. I’ll drift down in the spring like confetti and cling to my family’s shoes. They’ll carry me in their pockets, scatter the subtle silk of me across their pillows to help them sleep. What dreams will they have then?

In the summer they’ll eat me. Adam will climb over the fence to steal me, maddened by my scent, by my roundness, the shine and health of me. He’ll get his mum to cook me up in a crumble or a strudle and then he’ll gorge on me.

And the ending? Well, you know what will happen. And boy howdy, Downham does not hold back. As the publisher’s book synopsis puts it well, she takes you to the very edge. But how Downham manages to make Tessa’s death the most beautiful, celebratory thing you’ve ever read is a true act of brilliance on her part. I really, really hesitate to sound like one of those people whose criteria for a good book is “oh, it made me cry!”, but, seriously, the most stoic, hard-hearted person you know would probably have to put the book down and weep. But it’s a life-affirming, let-me-go-squeeze-my-children-now cry (“It’s so tangible. Being and not being”). Not a Lurlene McDaniel, gratuitious one. It’s profound and stirring, it’s well-crafted, you won’t be able to get it out of your head for weeks, and rarely has an author used line spacing to such great effect as Downham does in the final pages.

An unforgettable novel.

* * * * * * *

{Note: This review is based on an advance reader’s copy. Quoted excerpts are subject to change}.

{Yet Another Note: I realize that just five days ago I reviewed another David Fickling book. You know I try to mix things up here and represent a wide range of publishers, but . . . well, David Fickling Books is just kickin’ serious ass lately, to put it bluntly} . . .

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20 comments to “YA review: Before I Die by Jenny Downham”

  1. Dude. Duuuude. Great review, and it really does sound like a great book.


  2. Wow. That sounds like a very powerful story, due to your review and to those quotes. I’m not one to shy away from sad stories.* I’ll have to add this to my to-read list.

    Splendid review, Jules.

    Have you read:
    A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry
    A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin
    Like the Red Panda by Andrea Seigel

    *I had to get “special permission” to read Six Months to Live by Lurlene McDaniel at age 7. The teachers said it was for older readers, for another grade level, that it was sad, that I was too young – but I was patient, polite, and firm, and I got the book! šŸ™‚


  3. Thanks, Little Willow. No, I’ve not read those. You are so dangerous for my to-be-read pile. But dangerous is good.


  4. Wow! That is a seriously passionate review. I’ll look forward to checking it out when it’s published (and I know that you’ll let us know when that is, since you love the book so much).


  5. A Summer to Die: Two sisters, not very close, until one gets ill.

    A Time for Dancing: Two best friends, both dancers, one gets ill.

    Like the Red Panda: A great example of first person narrative revealing a character’s true thoughts – that this girl may not be as happy and “good” as everyone thinks she is – and what really happened when her parents died on her birthday years ago.


  6. Wow,you’re making this book sound more compelling than the upcoming Harry Potter finale,Jules(and that’s no easy thing to do). I definately have to get cracking and read my ARC of Before I Die sooner rather than later! Great review:)


  7. Hey, look . . . someone pointed out the American cover to me. That wasn’t there a few weeks ago.

    If any of you read this and want to discuss, please do. Tell me if you all enjoy the writing as much as I did.


  8. I cannot WAIT to read this now! Thank you for the review and for getting all of our attention on this. Obviously we need to stampede to the store!


  9. […] a great review at Seven Impossible Things here, and an article from the Sunday Times […]


  10. Re: Lurlene McDaniel

    In the early days of my job, I handed a survey to some of the teens who came to a program, asking for favorite authors, genres, etc. One boy (who was there with a bunch of female friends) was filling it out and asked them, “Who’s that lady? You know, the one who’s always killing her characters?” I had to try hard not to laugh.

    But as to the review, you’ve convinced me. I’ve tended to avoid dying girl books, but will have to give this one a try.


  11. Trisha, funny story. Yeah, it’d be a really sad thing if this lovely piece of writing just got dumped into “dying girl book.” I don’t really go for those myself. Let me know what you think when you read it!


  12. I have to say I read the book and found it good…but not as great as your review. It was not visual enough for me. I guess I compared it to a book I read recently, Before I Go by Riley Weston, which I have to say, read like a movie and left me speachless and haunted me for a week after I finished. It too is about a teenager who is diagnosed with termninal cancer. Amazing book. I actually laughed when I saw the UK cover for before i die because it was so much like before i go. Maybe that’s why they changed the cover for the US. (those copycats!)


  13. I saw this book in asda and wanted to buy it, and now im going to get it, what a book!


  14. Wow, you really make this sound like an amazing book. I have read both the Dutch and English version and i think its a terrific book. It shows the truth about lukemia and that is put into a brilliant story.


  15. i loved this book! it was AMAZING!! read it!!


  16. this book is excellent! it has a fantastic story line and the story is… compelling and a great read


  17. wow! šŸ˜€ I love ur review >>> it”s great and bcuz of this review i”m goin to buy the book now!! thanks šŸ˜€


  18. i love this book


  19. i read this book a long time ago, and i cried.
    it’s been like 4 years since i read this, and sometimes i crosses my mind. it’s definitely hard to forget this book.
    its just like DREAMLAND by sarah dessen – you cant ever forget it.


  20. Dear Ms Downham , How can you write such a heart breaking story , i completed the reading with tears in my eyes , and the ending chapter !!! , no words ….


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