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Life before Death - A Review of Jenny Downham’s “Before I Die” by Vibha Malhotra

We always assume that we are going to be around for years. And as every step takes us closer to our own respective deaths, we philosophically ponder about what awaits us after death. In the process, we often forget about the present. Jenny Downham’s first novel, Before I Die, successfully shocks us out of this pointless reflection and brings the focus back to life before death rather than after it.

Though the book is targeted at young adults, it lingers on in the readers’ thoughts once they have read it, irrespective of their age. The book does not advocate stoicism, it does not set rules, instead through the eyes of terminally-ill, 16-year old Tessa Scott, it sets out to reflect on Tessa’s and her family’s constant struggle to hold on to the time that is slipping away.

Tessa Scott, the novel’s central character is perceptive and analytical, wise beyond her years. This is most evident when she reflects upon her father’s unique position and surmises that “his shambling protectiveness towards me might be attractive to women. It makes them want to save him. From me. From all this suffering.” Elsewhere, when she wonders how she can feel older than her own mother.

She knows she is destined to die in a few months and has a list of things that she wants to do before it is too late. While some of the things on her list are fairly straightforward like wanting to have sex and take drugs, some of them are more difficult to come by, such as her parents getting back together. In her own words: “I don’t want to die like this, not before I’ve even lived properly.” And live she does. Her list keeps her going. The reader shares her elation over her small achievements as she crosses out things on her list one-by-one. Miracles happen in her life. Things she could not have dared to wish for come true. She falls in love with a boy who reciprocates her feelings. But her fate does not change and, in spite of the reader’s constant hopes that she will somehow get better, she does not.

Despite her unquestioning acceptance of her fate, Tessa obviously lusts for life with her constant pondering about the ways through which she could indefinitely postpone death.

“I know I won’t die with a Strawberry Mivvi in my hand.”

‘You never know, maybe I won’t die if I’m at home.’

And even in her last moments, ‘I won’t die if I’m thinking of Adam’s hot breath between my legs.’

The novel’s true strength lies in its empathetic handling of emotions that Tessa, her family, her friends, and, later, her boyfriend go through during the course of her long drawn illness. Her father’s constant devotion, his denial of Tessa’s imminent death, and the role reversal between Tessa and him towards the end of the novel touches the reader as much as her mother’s fear of responsibility. And only through the non-judgemental voice of Tessa and possibly the author herself, the reader is able to look beyond the conflicting emotions of Tessa’s younger brother and recognize his constant suffering when he, at one time, tells Tessa that he is going to miss her and, at another time, asks his parents “When Tessa dies, can we go on holiday?”.

Also remarkable is the way the narrative successfully avoids defeatism to which a topic such as this is very susceptible and, at the same time, steers clear of unrealistic forbearance as well. Walking on such a narrow line is a difficult task that the author accomplishes albeit a little self-consciously.

Tessa’s short life constantly reminds us of our own mortality and subtly urges us to prepare a list of our own because even though we may have many more years to live than Tessa, there is simply no time waste.