This post is the first of three, each reviewing, in order, the best three books I read in 2012 (though none were released this year). My third favourite read of 2012 was Before I Die by Jenny Downham.
However, earlier this year, a collection of the Best 100 Closing Lines from Books made the rounds on twitter and other social media, Before I Die making the list: "Light falls through the window, falls onto me, into me. Moments. All gathering towards this one." There was a lightness and airiness to this line that made me think maybe the book wasn't as earnest and predictable as I thought it might be, so I gave it a try.
“There's a terrible stillness. I notice a small tear in the wallpaper
above her shoulder. I notice finger marks grimed on the light switch.
Somewhere down in the house, a door opens and shuts. As Zoey turns to
face me, I realize that life is made up of a series of moments, each one
a journey to the end.”
Sixteen year old Tessa's "journey to the end" is shorter than most. She has cancer, and she knows she's going to die. She is confused, moody, spontaneous, and at times hysterical, but this isn't entirely because of her terminal diagnosis, but also because she is a teenager, grappling with love, and sex, and drugs, and friendships, and her fragmented family like so many other teens. Unlike in other books where the protagonist battles a terminal illness, Tessa doesn't appear to be remarkably brave, rather she's outraged, selfish, and at times incredibly unlikeable, as I'm sure most of us would be if we were seventeen and staring death smack in the eyes.
My favourite young adult novels are those that remind me what it was like to be sixteen and to feel everything so deeply, even those things that didn't need to be felt deeply at all. Before I Die reminds readers of a time when a few unkind words from a best friend can seem like the greatest betrayal, and a look from someone you want to look your way seems to mean the world. The more I read of Before I Die, the more I felt it was less a book about a girl with cancer, and more a book about Tessa's hunger to love and be loved and to feel life deeply, pressured by the impending time limit caused by her looming death.
Capturing the voice of a teenager, especially one weighted by the issues Tessa faces, is no easy task, but Jenny Downham does it perfectly, creating a character that is so flawed and so difficult, that ultimately, she seems wonderfully human and impossible not to mourn.