It might be one of our own but I can promise with every bit of me that this is a completely honest review. Jenny Downham is not only one of the loveliest authors I have met but also one of the most talented. She knows her characters as real people, their voices come to her and she’s told me herself she would wander round her house pretending to be Katie. The fact this book came from such a raw and personal place in Jenny’s life just makes its powerful impact even more emotional. Having talked to her in depth about the book, and her past novels, it began to mean even more to me. She’s also a fellow Loughborough grad!
Unbecoming came out on the 3rd September, published by David Fickling Books and I know I’m not the only one to completely fawn over this cover.
“Three women – three secrets – one heart-stopping story.
Katie, seventeen, in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal. Her mother Caroline, uptight, worn out and about to find the past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything’, despite suffering from Alzheimers.
As Katie cares for an elderly woman who brings daily chaos to her life, she finds herself drawn to her. Rules get broken as allegiances shift. Is Mary contagious? Is ‘badness’ genetic? In confronting the past, Katie is forced to seize the present. As Mary slowly unravels and family secrets are revealed, Katie learns to live and finally dares to love.
Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.”
Jenny’s writing is inexplicably beautiful. Every word has been chosen for a reason and every sentence resonates – no wonder it took 5 years to write! Her characters are so three dimensional, they practically leap off the page. They are human, with faults and with adorable quirks that you grow to love and her presentation of Mary mixes the horrendous grief that comes with dementia with the inappropriate humour it can create. I cried when I read the notes that Jack would leave for her around the house, it felt so real, so loving and the fact that it was something Jenny’s own father did just made me weep even harder.
I love that Katie’s sexuality was a norm – yes she was coming to terms with it, but it wasn’t the main story. It was refreshing to see her sexuality as just something which happens in life, another addition to the story instead of the focus. Similarly, Chris’ disability is never named, never focused on, another normal feature of life, slipped in so casually you might have missed it. The back story of Mary and her daughter Caroline was a story all of its own, full of repressed feelings, a mixture of love, fear and hate and grief for her faux-mother Pam. Mary was thrust back into her daughters life in the only way that they might ever have come together again, when she is vulnerable and unconfrontational. Caroline had a chance to feel sorry for her, to meet her mother with a fresh start and know her as a woman. I know that Jenny’s writing of a mother with dementia must have been incredibly hard, but the genuine emotions and memories that come through could only have come from personal experience.
Jenny’s characters are so real, so carefully created that they stay with you – that’s why everyone remembered Before I Die after all these years. Her writing is some of the best I’ve read and her understanding of a teenager’s mind is impeccable. She understands her characters and it shows. With Tessa, we sense her desire to live. With Katie, we travel with her on her journey to discover who she is and to discover Mary. And we follow each of the couple in You Against Me, understanding both sides, torn between the two until the final pages (and this book isn’t shouted about enough – it’s just as good as her others).
After reading a book by Jenny, you feel emotionally bereft yet completely uplifted, a skill so rare, she really is a master of her craft. I cannot wait to read her next work and am happy to wait another five years if we can expect something like this. A wonderful woman and a wonderful writer.