Writing about a teenager dying is difficult subject matter for a number of reasons, but somehow Jenny Downham manages to skirt most of the pitfalls.
Before I Die, a novel, is written from the point-of-view of Tessa, a 16-year-old who after a four year battle with leukemia has been told that she will die. It has now been used for the basis of the film Now is Good, recently released in cinemas.
The first thing that may put people off is that the subject matter is desperately sad.
I’m not going to lie...it most definitely is, and purchasing a box of tissues before you start is wise.
But Downham doesn’t let her character become a vehicle of sentimentalism, rather Tessa is at times about as frank as you can get.
So what is the first thing you do when you are facing death before you have even reached adulthood?
Well if you are Tessa you draw up a list of all the things you want to achieve in the relatively short time you have left, things like lose your virginity, take drugs, fame, break the law...
The experiences Tessa encounters bring varying degrees of pleasure and pain, like most experiences in life, it is just in Tessa’s case the experiences are more poignant than they would be for other teens.
What Downham does so well, however, is exploring Tessa’s relationships with her loved ones - from her father who refuses to give up hope, her younger brother Cal, who exhibits the brutal honesty of the very young, and her best friend Zoey who is very supportive until she has to deal with her own problems.
As Tessa’s relationships change and develop, so too does the list as Tessa gets sicker, with many of the more sensational aspirations morphing into simpler things we take for granted.
Along the way Tessa also manages to fall in love, yet another facet of her journey which leaves the reader struggling not to cry.
Reading this novel is not always a pleasant experience, but it in is the end, a rewarding one.