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Before I Die    by Jenny Downham Amazon.com order for
Before I Die
by Jenny Downham
Order:  USA  Can
David Fickling Books, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Sally Selvadurai

Before I Die is a truly powerful read, a must not only for teenagers but their parents as well. Jenny Downham has managed to take the reader into the mind of sixteen-year-old Tessa Scott, who is dying of leukemia, a cancer she has been battling for the last four years. Tessa no longer attends school and most of her friends have disappeared, afraid of her illness and of being around a sick person.

Zoey is the only friend that Tessa can rely on; Zoey just won't let Tessa be sick, and her zest for life infects her friend. Tessa decides that she has a list of things that she wants to complete before she dies: have sex, try drugs (other than the medicinal ones that she's had way too much of), travel, be famous the list grows longer as Tessa gets weaker, but she does make an effort to try many new things before she dies.

One of Tessa's to do items appears to be coming true: Adam comes into her life and she falls head-over-heels for him, but she is always brutally honest with him when he gives her flowers, she tells him, 'I'm trying not to acquire new things'. Adam's reply is that 'Perhaps living things don't count', to which Tessa replies: 'I think they might count more.'

Tessa experiences deep insights into the world of both the living and the departed: her dreams are dramatic and after one particularly vivid one she wakes up thinking: 'Perhaps I'm dead. Perhaps this is all it will be. The living will carry on in their world touching, walking. And I'll continue in this empty world, tapping soundlessly on the glass between us.'

Somehow Jenny Downham has touched a responsive nerve in the reader. This is a book that does not go quietly into that dark night; Tessa puts up an amazing struggle and we see the strain that such an illness brings to all around her, her family, her friends - but this is coupled with a remarkable, indomitable human spirit that shines through the pain and loss. Tessa experiences the usual stages of denial, rebellion, acceptance of her disease, but it hurts us as much as her when she realizes that her loved ones are making plans for the coming months, plans she knows do not include her. Before I Die is a remarkable debut novel.

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