Unbecoming by Jenny Downham (take 2)

indexShortlisted for the 2016 YA Book Prize

Unbecoming is a story of the chaos brought to seventeen-year-old Katie’s life by the discovery that she is attracted to her best friend and by the arrival of in the family of Mary, the grandmother she didn’t know existed. Katie struggles to deal with the repercussions of kissing her best friend at the same time as trying to work out what secret trauma lies behind the estrangement between her mother, Caroline and her grandmother, Mary, a mystery made more convoluted by the gaps in Mary’s memory due to her growing dementia and Caroline’s refusal to talk about the past.

Halfway through reading Unbecoming I stopped and read Katy Haye’s review (which you can read here) because I was enjoying the book so much and wanted to check how she felt about it. It came as such a surprise to me that the book hadn’t caught her imagination, when I felt so immersed. Unlike her, I was completely engaged by the characters and their stories and it seems quite reasonable to me that the only two lesbians in a school might fall for each other – it’s clear they’re not swearing undying love. And I disagree with Katy’s ‘head-hopping’ example. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a character to observe another one in such a way as to put thoughts into their head, particularly if you say that is what is happening. I find it so interesting that people can react so differently to books – and all the more reason to read beyond someone’s low star-rating of a book or film and find out what it’s about for yourself.

I found the depiction of Mary honest and moving, skilfully drawn through her present day point of view and that of her past self, with overlapping parts where memory segued into reality and vice versa. The scenes where she could not work out who she was talking to, where she muddled Caroline with Pat and Katie with Caroline, and where she saw the ghosts of each person at different ages seemed to me to express perfectly the way we hold on to memories to help us make sense of the present, and how losing those memories to dementia makes a person lose themselves. Giving us the overlapping stories of Caroline and Mary’s past from their different points of view told a truth about the shifting nature of reality, that it is possible to see the same thing play out from two different positions and come up with a different picture.

Unbecoming was not without flaws. After speeding breathlessly through the first two hundred pages, the pace slackened and I found myself a little less engaged. It’s a tricky thing, building a picture of time passing in a book and of things that become regular such as the Katie and Mary’s walks and café visits. I was also confused by the timescale. If Caroline was 14 in 1968 when she began looking after her grandfather, and 29 in 1983 when he died, what did she do for the next 10+ years before she started having babies in her mid-forties? Surely if she was so damaged by the past this time matters?

In all, I’d say Unbecoming was a strong contender for the YA Book Prize. I’d give it four and a half piranhas if we had half piranhas. What’s knocking it off the top mark for me is the flaws I’ve mentioned plus the fact that a five-piranha book is one I know I’ll come back to, and, though I’ll certainly read more by Jenny Downham, I think this is a one-read book.

Claire Watts

piranha stars green 4



More to Read!

In the lead-up to the 2016 YA Book Prize, we’re reviewing all the books on the shortlist. Visit us every week for a new review.

Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French?

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