'The sound of a bird flying low across the garden. Then nothing. Nothing. A cloud passes. Nothing again. Light falls through the window, falls onto me, into me.
All gathering towards this one.’
Ever wondered what you would feel like if you were told you only had a few months to live? What would you do with your few precious, remaining moments? What would you say to the people you were leaving behind? With so many people touched by cancer, Downham’s book remains as relatable now as it did when it was first released. It’s not everyday that you come across teenage fiction, which deals with such a poignant plot line where the ending is inevitable. Throughout the entire novel, we are made to come to terms with the fact that our protagonist, Tessa, is eventually going to die. So what’s the effect of this? Well it’s gripping to say the least. ‘Before I die’ is definitely a page-turner and is guaranteed to leave you feeling lucky to be alive.
Most of us have experienced some sort of loss in our lives. There’s nothing that can take away that sense of pain and overwhelming grief, but most of all there’s that feeling of wonder. The wonder of how it might feel to die? An impossible question to answer it would seem. Yet it’s something that Downham depicts so brilliantly in her novel. To say it left me feeling overwhelmed with sadness is not entirely true. Yes, I choked back tears and I felt as though I had lost my best friend when Tessa died, but the beauty of a book is that you haven’t really experienced any loss at all. If anything, Downham’s writing makes you happy to be living, which is why it is such a great novel to read.
'Before I die’ holds no secrets. The plot does exactly what it says in the title- it takes us on sixteen year-old Tessa’s journey, accomplishing things that she wants to do before she dies. Tessa is just a young girl suffering from cancer and all she knows is that she has ‘two choices- stay wrapped in blankets and get on with dying or […] get on with living’. When the realization hits that she has limited time left, she decides to write a list consisting of a few things to do before she finally reaches the end of her life. One of her wishes is to have a boyfriend. So much so, that the novel begins- ‘I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe of a hanger. Whenever I wanted, I could get him out and he’d look at me the way boys do in films, as if I’m beautiful. He wouldn’t speak much, but he’d be breathing hard as he took of his leather jacket and unbuckled his jeans.’ The list of things varies from things as serious as sex and drugs, to lighthearted fulfillments such as becoming famous.
Then we are presented with the heartbreaking wishes, such as wanting to stay alive long enough to meet her best friend’s newborn baby. By cleverly revealing Tessa’s list as the novel progresses, it means we are kept in suspense of what her next wish might be. This technique is much more effective for the reader, leaving us wanting more at the end of each chapter.
A touching twist in the plot is when Tessa falls in love, especially when she thought she’d never get the chance. After everything she has to deal with already, it’s hard to believe that she is still only young and when it happens, she understandably reacts like a child discovering a new place for the first time.
"‘Is this how it is for everyone?' she whispered.
'How do you know?'
'I just do. I've never felt this with anyone before.'
'Serious. That isn't a line.'
'Kiss me,' she said.
He did. Everywhere.’"
Downham throws Tessa into a whole new world of emotions that she thought she would never be able to experience. Adam, Tessa’s love interest, soon becomes her drug and release from her illness. So, whilst Downham manages to portray what it’s really like to die, she also manages to portray a young love, which makes the story even more gripping to read.
Tessa’s character sometimes comes across as being overly headstrong and we often feel more considerate towards the supporting characters, like her brother or her dad, whom she subconsciously pushes away. At certain points in the novel, it is hard to remember that Tessa is the one suffering and we become more concerned about the way she is treating those around her. However, we must remember that this is perhaps her way of telling us not to feel sympathetic towards her. After all, she is still just a normal teenager experiencing the same emotions. Despite having her ups and downs, Downham still manages to get us to warm to Tessa’s character, and by the end of the novel when Tessa is slipping in and out of consciousness; it is incredibly hard not to have teary eyes.
The book is filled with important supporting characters, such as Tessa’s best friend Zoey- a happy-go lucky girl who compliments Tessa with her wacky personality, Tessa’s younger brother, Cal – who gives us an innocent, much needed, alternative perspective on death and Tessa’s Mum- who adds another dimension to the story when she comes back into her life. In my opinion however, it’s Tessa’s Dad who’s the most heroic. He is the voice of reason who only wants what is best for his daughter. He knows full well that Tessa doesn’t have much time left and all he wants is to hold onto her for as long as possible. Towards the end of the book Tessa tells her father-
'Dad... For hours you sat in hospitals and never, not once, complained. You brushed my hair like a mother should. You gave up work for me, friends for me, four years of your life for me. You never moaned. Hardly ever. You let me have Adam. You let me have my list. I was outrageous. Wanting, wanting so much. And you never said, 'That's enough. Stop now.'
Throughout the novel, Downham employs a particular writing style, which manages to grip you from beginning to end. She has the knack of explaining poignant moments in such a simple and effective way, like when Tessa’s younger brother says that when she dies, she’ll turn to ‘dust, glitter, rain.’ Likewise, the familiar dialogue intertwined in the narrative brings each character to life and makes everything appear to play out as clearly as it might do in a film. At some moments, particularly at the end, it is almost as though you are in the room with them, witnessing Tessa draw her final breath.
'Before I die’ is an easy read, but can be enjoyed by teenagers and adults alike. I would say that it’s the perfect book for keeping on your bedside table, particularly because of its captivating plot and relatable characters, which will make you more inclined to pick it up every night. Also, with the recent release of the film adaptation, renamed ‘Now is Good’, there is no better time to read Jenny Downham’s touching novel. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s a real life-affirming book, which really does leave you appreciating the little things in life and reminds you not to take anything for granted.