Thursday, 25 November 2010

Before I Die - Jenny Downham

Author: Jenny Downham
Date of release: April 2008
Number of pages: 340
Publisher: Definitions
Also by this author: You Against Me

Book Girl Rating: * * * *

 It's really going to happen. They said it would, but this is quicker than anyone thought. Everyone has to die. We all know it. With only a few months of life left, sixteen-year-old Tessa knows it better than most. She's made a list though - ten things she wants to do before she dies. Number one is sex. Starting tonight. But getting what you want isn't easy. And getting what youwant doesn't always give you what you need. And sometimes the most unexpected things become important. Uplifting, life-affirming, joyous - this extraordinary novel celebrates what it is to be alive by confronting what it's really like to die.

The book is about 16 year old Tessa Walker, who is dying of terminal leukaemia. Tessa has formulated a list of things she wants to do before she dies – starting with sex.  But Tessa will learn that getting what you want isn’t always easy, and sometimes the smaller things in life are the ones that really count.  Living this list will mean shying away from her sheltering father and estranged mother... 

I’ve honestly and truly never been so moved by a book.  From the outset, the synopsis and praise quotes on the cover, we know this book is about somebody faced with death – but not once did I anticipate such a frankly astounding and beautiful read.  We’re instantly thrown into Tessa’s world and it’s clear from the beginning that whilst she has dealt with her prognosis with grace and dignity, she also shows us the anger and frustration she feels.   
Tessa’s frank account of losing a life she is yet to live is so powerfully poignant and utterly moving.  Whilst at times painful to read, Tessa’s humour and humility give the book a sense of hope, especially for the people she is to leave behind

Whilst there is an idea that this book is about death and dying, Tessa’s story is anything but – it’s beautiful and hopeful and relishes the experiences and moments sacred to living, rather than the grim reality of facing death.  In the face of it all, Tessa is unfalteringly brave and tells us her story from the perspective of a teenager who is forced to condense her short life into a series of experiences.
Especially moving at parts when she describes her desires for her funeral and what she wants it to be like, it was at times hard to read.  But Tessa has such a perspective, experiencing the things she does with such great intensity, realising the true value of life.  Then least of all, Tessa expects to fall in love.  Then she meets a boy.  So I found myself wanting Tessa to get all the things she desires before her life ends.  I needed her to fulfil these desperate requests, because I lived the book like she was me or at least a best friend, which made it so painful to contemplate her death.
Unequivocally the best book I’ve read in 2010, astounding, heartbreaking and profoundly moving, it’ll tear your heart out and put it back together simultaneously.  Furthermore, whilst my thoughts on the book were sometimes contrary – feeling sad, but simultaneously hopeful – I loved every minute of reading. Jenny Downham’s writing is wonderful; specifically for a first novel – especially the vivid descriptions of hospital treatments and Tessa’s feelings.  I can’t wait to read more of Jenny's work in the future.

Reviewed as part of Nat's Little Reading Challenge.