Ten Things To Do Before You Die
By Claire Marsden
Not the cheeriest of thoughts but something many of us talk about these days. There are books hiding in my parents’ shelves morbidly advertising 100 Places to visit or 100 Albums to collect-all before you die. I’d like to sing with Kate Bush, visit Ecuador, buy a Vivienne Westwood suit (and have the guts to wear it outside my flat!), drink Bloody Mary’s backstage with Dave Grohl . . . ah the list could go on and on. However, my wish list seemed to pale into self-absorbed and selfish insignificance after reading Jenny Downham’s debut novel ‘before I die’.
This is a novel which has caused a stir in Britain last year, receiving praise from many as a story written for young adults but one which most grown-ups could not fail to be moved by. Downham allows her sixteen year old protagonist Tessa Scott (a good name with three syllables in it) to tell her own story. Discovering life, escaping the shackles of parental control, experimenting with boys, pushing the boundaries and being disturbed or delighted with changes in our bodies are all things which any teenage girl could empathise with. So what makes Tessa so special?
Tessa Scott has been fighting a losing battle with leukaemia for four years when we meet her. Throughout the next 46 chapters we are privy to the last months of her life. It is not the leukaemia which makes Tessa such an amazing literary heroine though. It is her willful nature, her pragmatic voice, her tantrums and her ability to make a story supposedly about death become so alive. Tessa has a list she must fulfill before she dies.
This is where Downham’s novel becomes very different from other young adult’s coming of age stories. On the first page we are introduced to Tessa’s first item on the list “I want to feel the weight of a boy on top of me.” We witness her breaking the rules, going clubbing with her one friend (the only one not to be frightened off by her disease), smoking drugs and eventually ticking off item one-having sex with a boy. Left disappointed, feeling lonely and empty it is a while before she moves on to item two.
Writing about death, experimenting with different perspectives and voices is nothing new. Other successes have been Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We Need to Talk about Kevin an epistolary novel formed on the letters of a wife and mother to her dead husband, Alice Seobold’s The Lovely Bones in which the voice of the novel is a brutally murdered teenager watching her family come to terms with her death (2005), Mitch Albom’s For One More Day which focuses on the regrets of a son dealing with the loss of his mother and not forgetting The Book Thief by Markus Zusak where the narrator is death itself. All tackle death and its repercussions in different ways; including the reader in its power and encouraging them to think about their own mortality.
Downham’s Before I Die is equally as successful. Her characters are realistic and gritty; Tessa’s best friend becomes pregnant, her younger brother Cal aft er an argument tells her he hopes she is dead before he gets back from school and that it will be a painful one but also helps her to make “keep-death-away spells” and her once separated parents struggle to come to terms with her illness and her and her recent belief that she can do what ever she likes regardless of the law, others’ feelings or her safety because she is going to die anyway. Tessa is a character which does not demand our sympathy. She does many thoughtless things and utters many painful comments. But she also shows the capability for intense love-her beautiful yet doomed romance with the boy next door and the tender notes she writes to her family when the death finally closes in. Her observations of the world and nature are poignant. A girl whose life has not yet begun chooses being present for the birth of her friend’s baby as number ten on her wish list, whose boyfriend boils cinnamon sticks in the kitchen so that she can smell Christmas one last time and who tells her brother that to be the only kid at school with a dead sister will be “cool. You’ll get out of doing lots of homework and all the girls will fancy you.”
This is a story about death which demands that you enjoy living and is a story for teenagers whose parents will equally enjoy it. This is a must read. You will read it in one sitting just make sure you read it in the privacy of your own home-you will cry!