Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sixteen and Dying

"Before I Die" - Jenny Downham

I requested an advance reader's copy of this novel, not sure it would be anything I would like. It is, after all, a "juvenile" fiction.

Juvenile? Quite far from it, in so many ways. And I honestly don't think a young person could appreciate its nuances, its depth, though I am sure most any teen would enjoy the book. Young people romanticize death, it is a subject seemingly far far distant and thus safe to explore.

Life is very short,
And there's no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend...
- lyrics by Paul McCartney

For Tessa, a very un-typical sixteen year-old dying of cancer, life is extremely short, but she seems to take strength from confrontations with friends and family. She is resigned to the fact that she will die, but death will be on her terms.

Realizing she has to cram a whole lifetime into whatever few months she has left, Tessa is fearless in her pursuit of experiences. Writing her abbreviated life plan on her bedroom wall, she begins her list with number one: "sex". Her best friend, Zoey, has noticed the scribbling:

With Zoey looking, all the words writhe like spiders. She reads it over and over. I hate it how sorry she can be for me.

She speaks very softly, "It's not exactly Disneyland, is it?"

"Did I say it was?"

"I thought that was the idea."

"Not mine."

"I think your dad's expecting you to ask for a pony, not a boyfriend.

No, nothing about "Before I Die" is remotely like a fantasy world. It is strangely lyrical, haunting, and tough to read. The story progresses through Tessa's list, which besides the biggie "sex" item, also includes drugs, driving a car, smoking cigarettes, breaking the law, and becoming famous. No flying Dumbo rides for this girl. Even her flighty but loving mother, who tolerants her daughter's obsessions better than the dad, questions how far Tessa might push the boundaries in her determined quest to experience life in fast-forward. At one point she lightly, but with tense and obvious nervousness, queries Tessa if she had murder on her list. Something the reader probably already wondered, too.

The character of Tessa kept reminding me of someone. About halfway through the book, I suddenly realized I was "seeing" Tessa in my mind as a young Ali McGraw, in her role as Jennifer Cavalleri in "Love Story". Opinionated and gruff, Tessa has the same inner toughness. And Downham's writing is occasionally very "Plath-ish" to me. Again I am remembering another character, Esther Greenwood, who in "The Bell Jar" was an outcast, an outsider. The differences between Esther and Tessa are enormous, however - both dealing with illness, one mental, one physical, but with such opposite outlooks: Plath's Greenwood despairs of life whereas Tessa despairs of death.

The subject is death, but the message in "Before I Die" is about exploring and celebrating human life; it is about love - love for family, for self, and for life. Several times while reading I found myself stopped mid-passage and looking out my back door at all the green growing things in our garden; the wild birds and squirrels at the feeders, the way the tall stalks of volunteer sunflowers bend in the wind. So many little things in a day we all treat as invisible, unimportant. And, I pondered my own relationships, both joyous and bittersweet.

I walk slowly to the taxi rank, savouring details - the CCTV camera on the lamppost swinging on its axis, the mobile phones chirruping all about me. The hospital seems to retreat as I whisper goodby, the shade from the plane trees turning all the windows to darkness.

A girl swings past, high heels clicking, there's a fried-chicken smell about her as she licks her fingers clean. A man holding a wailing child shouts into his phone: 'No! I can't bloody carry potatoes as well!'

We make patterns, we share moments. Sometimes I think I'm the only one to see it.


After reading Jenny Downham's terrific novel, you may look much differently at your own life. Books like this should be read every couple of years; we all could use a gratitude adjustment now and again.

Yep, you should add this one to your "must read" list, even if you have to write it on the wall to remember it.

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