“I’m not myself.” Mary rubbed the back of her neck with the palm of her hand as if she had a headache. “Every morning I think I can do things, and by the afternoon it turns out I can’t.”
When I found out that Jenny Downham was releasing her first novel in five years, I was determined not to read it straight away. ‘Before I Die’ and ‘You Against Me’ are two of my favourite books of all time, and it had been so difficult to cope for five years with no new releases – I wanted to wait until there was another one on the horizon before reading this one.
Alas, I have no self control. That, combined with the fact that I decided to read every book on the YA Book Prize shortlist, meant that it didn’t take me too long to start ‘Unbecoming’, but I took my time reading it and I savoured every moment.
‘Unbecoming’ is a story about family, secrets and finding who you really are. Following three generations of one family, it’s a great exploration into how the past affects the future, and how forgotten memories can be just as painful as the ones at the forefront of your mind.
Katie’s grandmother, Mary, suffers with dementia. When her boyfriend dies Katie’s mother is contacted to take Mary in, despite the fact that they’ve always had a strained relationship and have been estranged for the majority of Caroline’s adult life.
Katie is happy to finally get to know her grandmother, even going so far as to volunteer to care for her during her summer holidays, despite the fact that her life is in a bit of a rough patch. She’s struggling with her sexuality after kissing her best friend Esme, her father had an affair and her mother is trying to control her life, dictating what she’ll do at sixth form and university. She focuses on trying to help Mary to take some of the pressure off, trying to fill in her ‘blue blanks’ – the gaps in her memory that cause her extreme amounts of pain – and attempting to figure out the puzzle that is her relationship with Caroline.
Meanwhile, Caroline tries to get Mary taken off of her hands as quickly as she can be. She contacts social services, and quickly starts planning visits to care homes, even though Katie protests and declares that it would be unfair. Mary left Caroline with her sister, Pat, when she had only just been born, before returning when Caroline was nine and taking a more hands on role in her life – because of this their relationship has always been very difficult.
It’s hard for Katie to work out everything that happened in their past, because Mary can’t remember and Caroline won’t communicate. She snoops and pries, eventually uncovering some huge secrets in her attempt to get her mother to forgive her grandmother after all these years. In the process she finally understands that the truth can set you free, and she finds herself.
I’m struggling to review this one, because I loved the story and the characters but I wasn’t too sure on the way it was told. I liked the fact that there were retrospective chapters filling in Mary’s past and giving her memories, and I really fell head over heels in love with Katie and her confusion over whether she liked Simona – the waitress in Mary’s favourite cafe, and the only openly lesbian person in her school – or whether she wanted to be her (I used to think the same thing about my girlfriend, so I relate to that feeling!). However, the book is told in the third person so that it’s easier to switch between Katie and Mary, and sometimes it was disconnecting – I struggle to find a flow with books told in the third person, particularly when they also feature flashbacks.
I did appreciate the fact that Mary’s story was told on an equal billing as Katie’s, though. This wasn’t just a teenager struggling with her grandmother’s dementia, this was a woman trying to deal with the fact that she was losing her memory and that the words she’d always loved – writing letters to Pat and Caroline every day for years – were betraying her. It was heartbreaking, and I feel as though I understand a lot more about dementia than I did before I read this book: I didn’t realise that it had such degenerative physical symptoms as well as the loss of memory, which makes it that much more upsetting.
For a book that dealt with so many different things (the stories of three characters, as well as Chris (Katie’s brother with special needs), gaining autonomy from your family, mental illness and sexuality) it was wonderful – there wasn’t too much of one aspect, and it wasn’t overwhelming even though there was a lot going on. If the perspective had been different it would have been a five star book, because I cared about everything that was going on – I really wish I could have given it five stars, but I found it too jarring! If you’re a fan of the third person perspective, I really think this is the perfect book for you to read, it was just my personal preferences that put me off of this one.
I’m already looking forward to Jenny’s next book: hopefully it won’t be another five year wait!