Before I Die by Jenny Downham

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Before I Die by Jenny Downham

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Poetic, lyrical, heartbreaking, agonising, Before I Die tells the story of the final few weeks in the life of a terminally ill adolescent. It's frank and open, dealing with every possible taboo subject, but it has great beauty and at times touches on profundity.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: August 2012
Publisher: David Fickling Books
ISBN: 1849921385

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Tessa is just 16 years old. And she has just a few months to live. After four long years of treatment for leukaemia, she's finally reached the end of the road. Her illness is now terminal. All the doctors can do is maintain her as best they can and wait for the inevitable crisis. Tessa's father, who has given up work to take care of her, is busy trying to support Tessa's palliative care by researching diets and holistic therapies on the internet. He won't give up hope. Tessa though, with the shocking matter-of-factness of the young, has accepted that she is going to die soon. What Tessa hasn't accepted though, is that she must die in any way incomplete. So she makes a to-do list, full of everything she wants to experience before the dying of the light. And the first thing on it is casual sex.

And honestly, that's all I'm going to tell you. Before I Die should be read, not described. You already know what happens - Tessa dies. Tessa dies before she is old enough even to vote. This isn't a book in which a plucky heroine is snatched from the jaws of death at the last moment, or a book which tactfully draws the curtain before the end of the last act. This is the story of the last months in a young girl's too-short life and Tessa sets out her stall on the very first page. It's a journey you need to share with her, not steal, vicariously, from any review.

For Tessa everything is crystallised; every sense is heightened, every moment is important. Fear and introspection stalk her but she has moments of passion and pleasure that far exceed the night terrors. At times she suffers from a lethargy so deep that she can barely rise from her bed. At others she is suffused with the kind of bloody-minded and dogged determination that makes healthy people refer to ill people as brave heroes. And at times she argues with her parents or her brother or her friend or her boyfriend in just the kind of unreasonable, unruly way any other teenager would.

It's beautifully, lyrically written with a penetrating awareness that flows from the book right into the reader. Downham doesn't shy away from a single taboo - what consequences are there for a terminally ill person? What does it matter what they do? But of course, it does matter. Everything has a consequence. Every emotion, however painful, is explored - Tessa's father desperately clings to hope, sometimes her mother can't even bear to meet Tessa's eye, her friend, Zoey, puts a boyfriend above a dying friend. And there are both moments of heart-stopping joy and ugly, pernicious fear.

Ultimately, though, Tessa gets the death she wanted and deserved. She experiences deep, shared, profound love on every level love has. And it's this that lifts Before I Die right out of the miserable, nihilistic book it could have been and catapults it right into the stratosphere. Jenny Downham has written about a life that burned brightly and in doing so, given us the life-affirming impulse to make ours burn brightly too.

My thanks to the publisher, David Fickling, for sending a copy of this wonderful book.

Teenagers who like realistic books about difficult issues might also enjoy Suzanne Bugler's story of an abusive relationship in Meet Me at the Boathouse. Those who prefer hard subjects to come wrapped in black humour might like Anthony McGowan's Henry Tumour, which deals with a boy and his talking brain tumour.

Note that this book is also published under the title Now is Good.

Booklists.jpg Before I Die by Jenny Downham is in the Top Ten Love Stories For Teenagers.

Booklists.jpg Before I Die by Jenny Downham is in the Top Ten Children's Books About Weighty Subjects.

Booklists.jpg Before I Die by Jenny Downham is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.

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Buy Before I Die by Jenny Downham at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Before I Die by Jenny Downham at


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Magda said:

I am probably to old and jaded (hey, I know I am) but isn't it so wonderfully lucky (and so totally, utterly unlikely) that she will find this love, so wonderful, so appropriately traumatised himself, so unimaginably right - in those last weeks she has left?

And yes, I enjoyed it very much, and I can't imagine a thinking teen/young adult, esp. female one, who wouldn't.

I suppose that's what books are for, to live lives and die deaths most people don't get to live and die.