The word “amazing” is seriously overused and for that reason I normally avoid it. But I would describe this book as “amazing.” It seems like the only way to convey my pleasurable shock at Jenny Downham’s mastery of language and her ability to convey this difficult story in a way that works.
It’s categorized as Young Adult reading, but don’t let that put you off if you are a Middle-Aged or Old Adult. It is about a 16-year-old girl who is dying. Don’t let that put you off, either. It’s not particularly depressing and it’s not sentimental. It conveys with startling clarity the aliveness of someone who is facing death. Tessa is utterly aware of life all around her in a way that most people aren’t. Downham consistently conveys Tessa’s heightened state of awareness and her off-kilter perspective all through the book. Tessa doesn’t do the things you think she might do and people — her friends and family and the medical personnel she encounters — don’t react in a predictable way.
Tessa plans to do ten things before she dies. They are not holiday-in-Disneyland sorts of things. She plans to have sex, to take drugs, to do something illegal, and so on. She is aided initially by her somewhat unreliable friend Zoey and eventually by the boy next door, Adam.
When Tessa takes drugs (mushrooms provided by Adam), her awareness is intensified:
I hold onto the doorknocker to make sure I don’t slip down. As I clench it, I notice that the front door has a hole in it that looks like an eye. All the wood in the door leads to this hole in spirals and knots, so that it seems as if the door is sliding into itself, gathering and coming back round again. It’s a slow and subtle movement. I watch it for ages.
But her whole life is an altered state, really. She is aware of the end of it moving inexorably towards her and it makes her alternate between anger, a coldly factual numbness, and a kind of waking dream-state. The anger comes out when she imagines death all around her: the bus she’s on exploding; the diseases lying in wait in the bodies of the apparently healthy passengers. She is not a saintly invalid: she can be selfish and demanding. But she has a softer side.
She thinks about what happens after death:
Cal says that humans are made from the nuclear ash of dead stars. He says that when I die, I’ll return to dust, glitter, rain. If that’s true, I want to be buried right here under this tree. Its roots will reach into the soft mess of my body and suck me dry. I’ll be reformed as apple blossom. I’ll drift down in the spring and cling to my family’s shoes. They’ll carry me in their pockets, scatter the subtle silk of me across their pillows to help them sleep. What dreams will they have then?
The end of the book is drawn out, as Tessa deteriorates and slowly retreats from the world. It’s hard to read, but it seems remarkably real.
Jenny Downham has been an actor and worked at a London-based community theatre group that took improv theatre to prisons, hospitals and schools. This is her first novel.