BEFORE I DIE
By Jenny Downham.
327 pp. David Fickling Books/Random House. $15.99. (Ages 14 and up)
If it sometimes seems as though the world is killing itself — the papers are full of spectacular evidence — here, between covers, is something to live for. Yes, a book, a first novel no less, about a 16-year-old girl dying of leukemia. This may sound too depressing for words, but it is only one indication of the inspired originality of “Before I Die,” by Jenny Downham, that the reader can finish its last pages feeling thrillingly alive.
Before I die: as in right up to the moment when. As in every perception, every particle of one girl’s desire, regret, rage, lust, light, darkness, right to the end.
And what a girl Tessa is, trapped in her failing body, in an unnamed English town. But then, she would have to be someone remarkable, wouldn’t she, to make us want to be inside her head with her, horribly alone, yet also strikingly free. It is in the quality of that freedom that Downham proves her abundant gifts as a writer, by showing us, in a stark interior poetry that never turns its back on the external world, what it is to face death honestly, as Tessa thinks, “before I’ve even lived properly.”
“I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe on a coat hanger.”
This is how Tessa begins her story, which is to say, begins the ending of her story. Here is a girl who wants, and because her time is limited, her wanting has a greater intensity than your average teenager (or, for that matter, adult) will ever know. An intensity that, over the years, has sunk any number of novels written by well-intentioned authors who have mistaken a tragic situation for genuine tragedy and a vague sentimentality for real feeling.
As ever, the difference between the two types of writing lies in the particular. Making her “scrawls of desire” on the wall by her bed like a prisoner in her cell, compiling her list of 10 things to do before she dies, Tessa is our Virgil, with the significant difference that, unlike Dante’s guide, she doesn’t know the dark place to which she is leading us any better than we do. On the plus side, she’s a lot funnier than old Virgil was, and — here I’m guessing — considerably more interested in having sex. Since she is not yet a ghost, she is also more vulnerable, contradictory, human.
“The usual suspects are here — the hat gang in the corner plugged into their portable chemo and talking about diarrhea and vomiting; a boy clutching his mum’s hand, his fragile new hair at the same stage as mine; and a girl with no eyebrows pretending to read a book. She’s penciled fake eyebrows in above the line of her glasses. She sees me staring and smiles, but I’m not having any of that. It’s a rule of mine not to get involved with dying people. They’re bad news.”
Tessa herself is bad news, in her own way; but then so are the other people in her life, those intimates who have come this far with her on her sinking little raft but will soon have to jump ship, since only she can go on to the end. There’s sweet, decent, brokenhearted Dad, whose survival drug is earnest denial. There’s selfish, ineffectual Mum, who left them four years earlier and still seems several steps removed from the messy playing field of emotional responsibility. “How can I feel older than my own mother?” Tessa wonders. “I close my eyes so I don’t have to see her fail.” There’s Tessa’s younger brother, Cal, who gives his sister a book called “A Hundred Weird Ways to Meet Your Maker” and says helpful things like “When Tessa dies, can we go on holiday?” There’s her best friend, Zoey, a rampaging narcissist in a minidress. And there’s Adam, the boy next door, recently made fatherless, who gardens and rides a motorcycle and looks after his grieving mother, yet who is not conventionally handsome, not perfect (perfection being not what Tessa’s after, since it is, probably, not life).
Of all the things on Tessa’s ever changing, ever growing list of things to do before she dies, falling in love with Adam and receiving his love in return is the experience she most hungers for, one that could alter the very fabric of living.
“I mostly believe in chaos,” Tessa tells us. “If wishes came true, my bones wouldn’t ache as if all the space inside them is used up. There wouldn’t be a mist in front of my eyes that I can’t brush away. But watching Adam walk up the path feels like a choice. The universe might be random, but I can make something different happen.”
When love does finally happen, it feels to Tessa (and, by the end of this unforgettable novel, to the reader) like a gift worth any sacrifice imaginable, even death. All the way through, Downham gives Tessa the power to tell her own truth, to represent her imperfect, all-too-human self, as well as the imperfect, all-too-human selves of those around her, without regard to the opinions and values of others. The result is as honest and indelible a portrait of a young adult at risk — no, beyond risk — as one is likely to find in recent literature. One of the more surprising revelations to be found in “Before I Die” is that it’s a “young adult novel” only in the sense that readers Tessa’s age are perhaps the ideal audience for a true story about death.
I don’t care how old you are. This book will not leave you.
John Burnham Schwartz’s novel “Reservation Road” has just been made into a feature film. His new novel, “The Commoner,” will be published in January.