If you’re not familiar with Jenny Downham, you really should be. Her bestselling debut, Before I Die was an amazingly powerful examination of mortality and life that was taken to the big screen with Dakota Fanning under the name Now Is Good. Her second novel is the electrifyingly dark You Against Me, which deservedly won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her latest novel, Unbecoming, is out in September, and blows her previous brilliant pieces of writing clean out of the water.
Katie’s life is complicated. Her mother is piling pressure on her to succeed in her exams, and her friends have abandoned her completely after she kissed Esme, her best friend. She’s alone in the world, her Dad with his new family, her Mum at work all the time, and her brother Chris at his special needs school most days – Katie has no control over her life, and nothing she wants to do even if she did. But when Mary turns up, life suddenly becomes much more interesting – because Mary is Katie’s grandmother, a grandmother she never really knew she had. Mary is in the early stages of dementia, and after her partner Jack dies, she’s left alone and confused with nowhere to go. Her daughter had hoped never to see her again, but Mary has no-one to turn to, and her memories are fading with each day. Katie is determined to look after her ailing grandmother, and to repair the yawning gulf that separates her elderly relative from her mother, but some memories unlock secrets, and some secrets can do more damage. Katie needs to piece together the truth from a stubborn, uncommunicative mother and the rapidly vanishing memories of Mary to try and work out the strange, omnipresent darkness in her family’s past.
Unbecoming shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t. In theory, it’s trying to do too much at once, cover too many themes. What it should be is chaotic and meandering. What it actually is, is tight and sprawling and beautifully, perfectly crafted – like a strange tangle of coloured wools that look so dissimilar, but have been woven together which such skill and talent to create something staggeringly breathtaking.
Katie, the main character of the novel, is a superbly written young girl, full of fire and drive, as well as open uncertainty and anxiety. She’s trapped in a world she can’t escape, but she’s starting to scratch the surfaces of what her life could be, looking at the memories of Mary and trying to escape the control of her mother. But in amongst all her burning passion for a wider world, she’s filled with guilt and a strong need to do right by her exhausted but overbearing mother – and this mix makes her a sweet, caring and immediately engaging protagonist. Mary is absolutely heartbreaking, the parts of the book from her point of view are bittersweet and filled with pure, unrestrained emotion. The way time meanders and snaps back and forth for her is never confusing to read, but her confusion is palpable in every line, and her muddled memories are all at once heartwarmingly bright and innocent, and tinged with an edge of sadness that meant I had a lump in my throat pretty much at all times. Her carefree attitude combined with her constant need to do the right thing makes her a flickering and unique character full of passion and fire. Caroline (Katie’s mother and Mary’s daughter) is also a superb contrast of emotions and personalities, so fearful of the world and of what it could do to her children, but so full of resentment and passionate rage towards her mother. All of Jenny’s characters are brilliantly, faithfully portrayed on the page, and she never lets them be flawless heroes or two dimensional villains – Chris is emotionally articulate and loved, and Simona is firey, strident and stubborn.
It’s not just Jenny’s characters that shine, though – her writing style is totally flawless, lyrical and philosophical, drifting across the page like sweet incense. Unbecoming reads like a Beautiful South song, messy and heartfelt and so close to home that it sees all the beauty in the mundane and everyday. Even the horribly painful moments have a sheen to them because her writing style is so fluid and gorgeous – every word weighs with purpose and emotion, and she never wastes a single one. It’s a dozen glorious threads and every single one of them sings and vibrates in harmony to create a bigger story. There’s plot twists and darkness that’s handled with intelligence and sensitivity, as well as staggering passion for life that made my heart balloon in my chest, as well as bringing me to tears on multiple occasions. Jenny handles dementia and depression and mental health achingly well, and her look at the development of Katie’s sexuality is subtle, tasteful and expertly woven into the larger plot. Mary’s dementia is so well handled, actually, that it couldn’t help but break my heart over and over again.
Unbecoming is a powerfully important YA novel, covering three generations of women, each with secrets and vibrancy that leap and skip about the pages, examining so many vital themes of sexuality and mental health. It’s a true triumph of writing, and Jenny Downham may well be one the all time greats. This is a classic in the making.
Thanks for reading, ya’ll.
P.S. You can pre-order Unbecoming HERE – out in September.
As always, thanks to Phil Earle for the proof. He’s never given me a bad book yet.