I tend to like novels that ask difficult questions about life and it’s meaning, which is why I picked up the recent novel Before I Die by Jenny Downham. On the surface it looks like quite a depressing tale – a young girl, Tessa, of about 15 is dying of leukaemia.. It is terminal and there is nothing the doctors can do for her. Reading it at the moment when there are high profile cancer sufferers such as Jade Goody, (and several I know in my life), it offered and interesting read. The book is not entirely depressing, although in the end the predictable happens and her illness gets the better of her.
Facing up to her death, Tessa realises she has two options. She can either succumb to the illness and fade out gradually, or try and eek every last ounce of living out of her life. She chooses the latter, and decides to make a list of things to do before she dies. Number one is sex. Egged on by her best friend, they find a couple of boys in a nightclub and go back to theirs. Number two is saying yes to everything. This gets her into trouble. The list continues.
Strangely though, she doesn’t seem to be happier or more fulfilled by the list and she starts moping about more. This fulfillment eventually comes through the introduction of a love interest – the boy who has just moved in next door with his mum. He has also had some sorrow in his life so can understand her better than most people. After some reticence – unsurprising given how the relationship will eventually end – they grow closer and their relationship deepens. Tessa has finally found love before she dies.
Downham writes well and seems to capture what might be going through 15 year old girls brain. The last section capture well Tessa drifting in and out of consciousness.
In many ways, the message of this book is not a bad one – we only have one life so we should live it and make the most of our opportunities. As Tessa doesn’t believe in anything afterwards (and Jenny Downham barely mentions religion in this book), living for this life, however short it may be, is all that remains. Unfortunately the subtext of such a message reveals that life is only worth living if we find love – without her relationship, (it is implied), Tessa’s life would have been a waste. Downham’s conclusion is an obvious one for such a worldview, albeit a depressing one. The meaning of life is always read through the lens of death and through beliefs about what comes next. It’s a shame that the meaning revealed by Jenny Downham in this book offers little more than to urge the reader to find love whilst they can get it. A charming story, but ultimately one without hope and one that fails to deal with the issue of death on a serious level.