Unbecoming by Jenny Downham
|Unbecoming by Jenny Downham|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: Three women. Three secrets. This is a beautiful story of coming-of-age, family secrets and identity. Friendships between the old and the young can be the most formative of our lives and never more so here.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 435||Date: September 2015|
|Publisher: David Fickling|
Longlisted for the 2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal
Three women. Three sets of secrets about to be laid bare.
Katie lives with her learning-disable brother Chris and her rather controlling mother. They've recently moved to her mother's childhood town after Katie's father got a girlfriend and a new baby. Katie, a hardworking and dutiful girl, is halfway through her AS levels when everything - and I mean everything - goes wrong. First up, Katie kisses her best friend Esme. Esme rejects her and, worse still, tells all the mean girls at school what happened. They miss no opportunity to mock and name call. And then a phone call one night brings Mary into their lives...
... Mary is the grandmother that Katie has never met, thanks to a falling-out with her mother years and years ago. But Mary's partner Jack has died and Mary has dementia, so can't manage alone. Katie's mother is full of resentment at having to care for her estranged mother, but Katie is inexplicably drawn to Mary. As she spends a summer caring for the chaotic old lady, recording her memories, the past is gradually revealed.
Wow. Unbecoming covers a lot of ground - coming-of-age, coming out, divorce, teen caring, family secrets, dementia. It really shouldn't work. It should crumble under the weight of all that ambition. But it doesn't. It flows, lyrical and lovely, from the page. And underneath all the intense emotion and beautiful description, lies a tight structure that gradually unravels all the secrets and lies in both past and present. It's quite the feat. I think Downham manages this because her true focus is family - as it was in both Before I Die and You Against Me. The bedrock underlying all three books is the family, and the overt themes - terminal illness, rape, dementia, identity, coming out - are all hung upon that bedrock. That's why they work.
Katie is a wonderful central character. Straightaway, the user can see her potential and so can Mary, even through the prism of her fading sense of self. In her own, worried, controlling way, so can Katie's mother. But Katie herself doesn't see it. And all her feelings of insecurity are sent into overdrive by the fallout from The Kiss. Could she be gay? Furiously, she pushes the very thought away and the sudden appearance of Mary gives her some diversion. And yet, by connecting with Mary and by documenting her past to preserve her identity, Katie learns the tools to understand her own identity.
Some of the most moving passages in the book are told from Mary's point of view. I'm not sure if it's possible to get inside the head of a person with dementia, but Downham's vivid descriptions of Mary and the way in which she veers between confusion and sudden but specific certainties, are, I think, about as close as you could get. I spent a great deal of this story with an impossible-to-swallow lump in my throat. I loved Mary and she'll stay with me for a very long time.
Unbecoming is beautifully written. It's thoroughly absorbing. It's utterly moving. It looks at every facet of identity. Yep. Jenny Downham has done it again. Brava!
Another fabulous story about identity and in which truth depends upon the teller is Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman. We also loved Read Me Like A Book by Liz Kessler. And readers who also enjoy adult fiction might enjoy the interweaving of a very different three women in The Eyrie by Stevie Davies.
You can read more book reviews or buy Unbecoming by Jenny Downham at Amazon.com.
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