Before I die by Jenny Downham
David Fickling Books, 2010. ISBN 9781849920452.
(Age: 14+) Highly recommended. Death. Cancer. The story of Tessa's last few months alive is told with earth shattering honesty as this young adult fights all the way to the end. Determined not to leave some of life's milestones unexplored she makes a list with her friend Zooey of things to do before she dies, including sex, drugs, fame and love.
Living with her father and brother, Cal, has its own problems as her father strives to find another way for her, after she refuses some of the medical intervention received in the past. Separated form the woman he still loves, he trawls the internet for alternative therapy of any kind, rejoicing when his wife reappears to support their daughter.
In and out of hospital when showing an increasing number of symptoms of this cruel disease, Tessa's relationship with Zooey falters, but when Zooey admits that she is pregnant, Tessa supports her friend in her decision whether or not to have an abortion. Dark humour dots the pages, particularly so when friends and medical staff mouth platitudes which sharpen the readers' sense of the absurd. One nurse, Philippa, cares more deeply than the others and one doctor, James, answers the questions no one else will answer.
In meeting the boy next door, romance develops despite misgivings from both sides. He becomes a significant anchor in Tessa's life as they work around her deterioration.
In opting to leave hospital she wants to die at home, where her boyfriend can hold her, where she can see the flowers blooming over the fence, where Zooey can talk to her about the baby, Cal can tell her about his school day and Dad can continue his fight to keep her alive. It is all so real, the shorter sentences leading the reader to the end where her breathe stops.
At times a beautifully played out romance, at times a difficult to read progress of her illness, this book is outstanding in its dealing with the death of a young adult. All the questions people want to ask, but cannot, are answered, with detail of her physical decline given. The inability of her parents, particularly her father, to let her go and do as she wishes, is sympathetically shown, the coolness of the medical staff, the curiosity of people at school and in the neighbourhood, are all shown in the background, giving a biting reality to the story.
Her voice is intoxicating, her struggle to achieve some things before she dies makes engrossing reading.