Before I Die – Jenny Downham Review
Tessa is dying of leukemia, and there are no treatments left to stave it off. Before I Die documents her journey through her last few months of life, offering tear-jerking insight into the reality of love and life itself.
I first read Before I Die months ago, and it didn’t make that much of an impression on me. Some emotion, yes, but nothing groundbreaking. So I decided to try it again, and have come to the conclusion that this book needs to be read multiple times to be appreciated.
But appreciate it I did.
I’m having trouble pinning down exactly why. I mean, Tessa (main character) is incredibly annoying. If I met her in real life, I would probably punch her. Yeah, she’s got a terminal illness but gurl if you’re going to narrate a book please stop making me want to strange you before the cancer can! However, this could be a good or bad thing, depending on how much likeability you’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of realism.
That carries through to the whole book, actually. The whole book is so achingly, beautifully real. She’s no archetypal What Katy Did character. But neither is she outrageous enough to be entertaining in her unpleasantness. She’s just an ordinary teenage girl who knows she is going to die, trying to live her life the way she wants it. And that doesn't mean things like helping the orphans, by the way. It’s things like sex and drugs, things that she sees as so urgent because if she doesn't do them now she may never get the chance.
The crowning glory of the book, though, is the writing. It’s simply stunning, always perfectly phrased. I was trying to get some choice phrases to illustrate my point but there were too many to choose from so they’re at the bottom of this post. The whole thing is just so unashamedly surreal. I don’t know how Downham gets away with it – anywhere else it would just come off as pretentious, Tessa’s constant philosophising. Here, while it’s still pretentious, it fits somehow and adds to the piece.
And Adam - Adam is just great. You'd have to read his dialogue to understand.
All this said, I would avoid the book if you like plot-driven novels rather than emotion-driven ones. Before I Die really has no plot to speak of. I mean, the ending is in the title. And there are no big twists or sudden bangs. But if you appreciate beauty, subtle tearjerkers and little insights into the strangeness of life, I recommend it.
Examples of the writing:
"You've got lots more tomorrows."
'I used to believe that Dad could do anything. Save me from anything. [...] It hurts more than I could ever have imagined.'
'And I'll continue in this empty world, tapping silently on the glass between us.'
'If wishes came true, my bones wouldn't ache as if all the space inside them is used up.'
'How many miles we miss each other by.'
'How easy it is for them to talk about the future.'
'It's easy to talk in the dark - I never knew that before.'
'It's utterly beautiful not to know my own edges.'
'He strokes my head, my face, he kisses my tears.'
"I want to die in my own way. It's my illness, my death, my choice. This is what saying yes means.”