“Stop pretending I’m going to be all right.”
Sixteen-year-old Tessa is fighting with her family as much as she is fighting her leukaemia. Her devoted father and annoying little brother are giving her cabin fever, her absent mother has recently reappeared in her life, and her only friend left from school is busy living a glamorous life. So Tessa makes a list of things to do before she dies – starting with sex, drugs and petty crime.
Tessa’s furious teenage angst is what makes this book excruciatingly real. She could sit around and be a docile patient, but she rails against her father’s cotton-wool treatment, her brother’s obsession with magic tricks, and her own bad luck. As she sets off about her adventures, she learns a little about responsibility and a lot about growing up. Her determination to lose her virginity results in the inevitable horrendous experience, but she meets a nice boy later who treats her well. Petty crime and a day of saying yes, whatever the question, also end as expected, but the book is more than that – it is an exploration of what it is to be 16, to have your whole life ahead of you – but to not, and to know that Death is standing just behind you.
Downham doesn’t dress anything up – Tessa’s little brother can be a brat and one day wishes that she die soon and be buried at the dentist; her father cannot bring himself to let her go and spends hours on the internet researching treatments rather than spending time with Tessa. The teenagers are all messed up in teenagery ways and not everything that the reader is hoping will come true does, providing some sad reality in Tessa’s environment as well as in her fate.
On the whole, however, it is a positive and beautiful book, embodying a slightly misguided but amusing and eventually fulfilling carpe diem mission.
“I want you to be with me in the dark. To hold me. To keep loving me. To help me when I get scared. To come right to the edge and see what’s there.”
Reviews from elsewhere: The Guardian