Stories that manage to capture the close personal truths of life are not as common as you might hope. Stories that manage to weave between the experiences of vastly different people and make you fall in love with all of them once are truly rare and need to be cherished. Unbecoming by Jenny Downham is one of those stories.
It follows a teenage girl called Katie – quiet and afflicted with a little social anxiety for various reasons – as she meets her elderly grandmother Mary for what she believes is the first time. Despite the resistance of her mother Caroline and Mary’s debilitating Alzheimer’s, Katie takes it upon herself to piece together the story of their family’s history.
Though it mostly focuses on Katie’s experiences, the novel jumps occasionally to tales of Mary and Caroline, both in the modern day as adults experiencing Katie’s world from a different perspective and from the different parts of their past that all three are struggling to come to terms with.
The book doesn’t have a villain.
It has three characters at the centre of the story who don’t always see eye to eye. The conflict comes from the differences in their plans and in their views. The fact that they all care deeply for one another makes the friction between them so much more painful – both for them and for the reader – than if the conflict was caused by a typical antagonist. The affection they have for each other, fluctuating the way any relationship under stress does, drives the story. It causes both the upward and downward surges in the plot.
The novel is, ultimately, a love story between three generations of women. It shows the strain that love can put on you and the way it can save you.
The relationships are constructed in a way that reflects reality. The characters are flawed yet understandable, they make realistic decisions that sometimes means they hurt others without meaning to. They are complicated, but you get enough of a glimpse into their minds that you can follow along without getting confused.
The way the novel weaves between the three characters’ stories, showing each from multiple perspectives, in a way that gives a well-rounded impression of their ties to one another. It is clear why they stay so close, but also why it is difficult.
No matter how unconditionally you love someone, that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes hard. That comes across so beautifully in Downham’s writing that the novel is heartbreakingly sweet.
A lot of the stress on all three is caused by Mary’s Alzheimer’s.
In her writing, Downham handles the illness beautifully. She writes it from all three perspectives in a way that makes absolute sense. She shows Katie’s empathy, Caroline’s frustration and, perhaps most eloquently, Mary’s own fear and vulnerability. She creates the feeling of being lost in your own skin, afraid of your own mind, in a way that connects on a fundamental level. Even if you have no experience of it yourself, even from an outside view, you get a very real understanding of what such stark terrifying memory loss must feel like.
She approaches both depression and social anxiety in the same way, through Katie and Mary’s sister Pat.
It’s handled both honestly and delicately and, ultimately, hugely contributes to the aspects of the novel that tug at the heart strings.
If the novel doesn’t leave you with at least a little lump in your throat, then it will at least inspire an all new reverence for love and empathy in all their forms.
Author Bio – Kirstie Summers is journalist whose day job takes her to all the most interesting places and events in South London. She also freelances for a number of sites and publications, from gaming and literature reviews to creative fiction. She lives in London and spends as much of her free time as possible making the most of being in such a diverse city. She keeps one day a week to herself to swim, relax and keep the stress of the world at bay.