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Before I Die by Jenny Downham


The Blurb On The Back:

It’s really going to happen. They said it would, but this is quicker than anyone thought.


Sixteen-year-old Tessa is going to die. And she’s made a list of ten things she wants to do in the time she has left.

But getting what you want isn’t easy. And getting what you want doesn’t always give you what you need. And sometimes the most unexpected things become important.

Uplifting, life-affirming, joyous – this extraordinary novel celebrates what it is to be alive by confronting what it’s really like to die.

Winner of the Branford Boase Award and shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.




Tessa is 16 years old and has terminal cancer. Knowing that her time is running out she makes a list of 10 things that she wants to do in the time that she has left and with the help of her best friend, Zoey, sets about fulfilling them. However as she experiences things like sex and drugs, she learns more about love, family, who she really is and how valuable life really is.

Jenny Downham’s debut novel is absolutely beautiful – a humane, acutely observed and ultimately life affirming novel with pitch-perfect characterisation and a voice that is never less than utterly believable.

Tessa is a wonderfully drawn character – by turns scared, defiant and desperate she exasperates with her self-destructive behaviour even as she pulls the heartstrings with her sad determination. Her jealousy of best friend Zoe for having all of the opportunities she’s going to have is well observed, as is her father’s refusal to accept the inevitable and continue researching potential treatments.

The rights of passage that Tessa goes through – particularly having sex and taking drugs – are portrayed in an unsentimental way. In contrast the love story that develops avoids being mawkish but may still be too trite and sweet for some. Equally, the story of Tessa’s parents, and particularly the return of her mother risks becoming clichéd, although I could forgive that for the ease with which Downham takes the reader through the events and because of the likeability of both parents.

Where the book really comes into its own is in the final third which I found to be incredibly moving. There is no easy way out of this book and the way in which Downham depicts the final stages of cancer is unflinching – not just in terms of the physical effects on Tessa but also the effects on the people who love her and who she loves.

There wasn’t a moment in this book that I didn’t find affective and affecting. It is a stunning novel, the quality of the writing is incredible and I think it can legitimately identified as a must-read in teenage fiction.


The Verdict:

This is a beautiful YA novel that takes an unflinching look at terminal cancer and in doing so, provides an ultimately life-affirming read. I’d recommend it as a must-read to anyone interested in YA fiction or just looking for a well-written, wonderfully characterised novel with a moving plot.

I’m currently doing a give-away on my RL blog of an ARC of Jenny Downham’s forthcoming second novel, YOU AGAINST ME, which is not released in the UK until December and also an ARC of ANGEL by L. A. Weatherly, which was released in the UK in October. Full details can be found here.

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