Unbecoming by Jenny Downham is an intense read about familial relationships, specifically how pain can be passed through generations and how everyone’s experience is a truth of its own.
Unbecoming follows Katie as her grandmother, Mary, who is suffering with Alzheimer’s is thrust back into her family after years of estrangement from her daughter Caroline. Family secrets are revealed as Mary’s memory returns – teen pregnancies, crushed dreams, mental illness and the terror of parenting. Amidst this, Katie struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and the push back of homophobic stigma in a small town after accidentally kissing her (now former) best friend Esme. Alongside the three women, is Chris – Jenny’s brother who has unspecified special needs.
Not far from the background are the absent men. Katie and Chris’ father who absconded with a new family. Jack, Mary’s boyfriend, who passed away and unsettled her fragile world. Mary’s stern unpleasing father.
I love the slow pace of this novel, the plot unfurls gently. It did take a little while for me to settle into this pace, but I’m glad I stayed with it. I really resonated with Katie’s experience of misplaced attraction, confusing those intense female teenage semi-romantic friendships with real romance. Many other young people working through their own sexuality will recognise much in her.
Despite the heavy topics, I wouldn’t say this novel is particularly sombre in tone on the whole. The relationship between Mary and Katie is a joy to see unfold, and Chris regularly inserts witticisms into complex situations. Of course, there are many touching moments that had me reaching for the tissues.
Interested? Read it here.
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Thank you to David Fickling Books for sending me a copy to review.