Review: Before I Die, by Jenny Downham

The weekend was spent in a flood of tears. Not because of any personal crisis in my own life, but because I finally read Jenny Downham’s Before I Die – one book on my huge list of things-I-must-read.

Published in 2007 (presumably to cash in on the weepy trend sweeping the adult market in the form of Jodie Picoult novels) Before I Die tells the story of sixteen-year-old Tessa’s quest to complete her list of things to do before she dies of cancer. Yes, I became extremely emotional upon reading it. Yes, I cried so much in the last few chapters it was difficult to read the words. Yes, this was embarrassing because I was on a crowded bus. But did I care about the characters? No. Was it beautiful writing that had me in tears? No. In fact it was barely anything to do with Jenny Downham’s skill in crafting the novel at all. It was the use of a highly emotive subject – cancer in children – that allowed me to be easily manipulated by the content.

Tessa is not particularly likeable at the start; she is cruel to her family and the first item on her list is to lose her virginity – to anyone who will have her (a random boy in a club, as it turns out). This, to me, is a clumsy way of demonstrating the fact that she is angry with the situation, and is typical of the nature of the ‘developments’ that Tessa undergoes through the novel. The intent may have been to show what her illness drove her to, but the effect (on me, anyway) is that the reader is irritated with such an irresposible attitude towards her health – it is explicitly stated she is too ill/weak to go clubbing. Maybe this would have been better placed later on in the novel once the reader has got to know Tessa better, rather than as a ‘shocking opening’. Changes to her character seem clunky and forced, and as the majority of the plot developments revolve around the development of Tessa’s illness, the progression does not come across as natural. The writing itself did not particularly grab me, and given that the novel is focused around Tessa and that it is difficult to warm to her as a character, it is glaringly obvious that Downham uses the character’s illness as a crutch/shortcut to fleshing her out and making her real for the reader.

Many people have recommended this novel to me, but I am still confused as to what exactly they liked about the novel, aside from its ability to incite such strong emotions in the reader due to its subject. Novels like this strike me as manipulative and lazy, as they rely on the power of the tragedy involved, rather than the quality of writing or character development. They are designed primarily to provoke, and leave me as a reader extremely unsatisfied at the end. This is because I cannot reconcile the facts that I was underwhelmed by the novel and yet completely overwhelmed with emotion.

Clearly many readers do not agree with me – the reviews on Amazon are nearly hysterical in their admiration for this book.

‘I needed her to fulfil these desperate requests, because I lived the book like she was me or at least a best friend, which made it so painful to contemplate her death’

I can see why it has sold well, as misery lit has kept appetite for books like My Sister’s Keeper strong since the mid 2000s. Before I Die is no better or worse than any of Jody Picoult’s novels, and has the potential to be a crossover success given the subject matter, nature of the trend, and age of the protagonist. The publisher in me can see all this. But the children’s literature student in me is not convinced.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

What do Kid You Not listeners think of misery lit? Am I being unnecessarily harsh? Or is it too easy for writers to use tragic subjects as a substitute for poor writing?

By Lauren

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