I won my copy of Unbecoming in a Twitter giveaway back in August and I can’t believe I waited so long to read it because it’s truly one of the most wonderful books that I’ve ever read.
Three women – three secrets – one heart-stopping story. Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.
Unbecoming is Jenny Downham’s third book, and is quite different to the books that I’ve been reading recently. Compared with the first-person narrative stories that I’m usually drawn to, Unbecoming is told entirely in third person.
Katie is 17 and is struggling to come to terms with her sexuality – she thinks she might be gay, but is passing off all of her feelings as one offs, as completely within the normal range of heterosexuality. Her mum, Caroline, has lived an incredibly hard life having been brought up thinking her aunty was her mum, and since having children has had to cope with divorce and caring for a son with an undiagnosed condition. She’s tightly wound and heavily protective, keeping her children safe by planning every aspect of their lives even if it’s not at all what they want.
Caroline has been estranged from her mother for years but when Mary’s husband suddenly dies, Caroline is forced to look after her. Now suffering from dementia Mary is confused by Caroline’s reluctance to be close to her and has trouble remembering any of the circumstances behind her daughter’s anger. The secrets that all three of these women are holding on to are gradually revealed when Mary moves in.
Unbecoming is a love story hidden within a family mystery. 3 generations of women whose reluctance to communicate is holding them back from connecting must dig into the past to discover what they’re missing out on in the present. Everything about this book felt real, and subsequently it was an incredibly emotional and powerful read.
Jenny has such a talent for writing multi-dimentional characters that you believe and care about and I completely fell in love with all 3 of them. At the beginning, each character is defined by their flaw – Katie’s secret, Caroline’s anger towards her elderly mother, Mary’s absence from Caroline’s life – but as the story unfolds we, like the characters themselves, learn that these negative aspects are just a small part of what makes each character unique. I think it’s so important and uplifting that each of the 3 women, all at completely different stages in their life, has room for self discovery.
I also love the style that Jenny uses to tell the 3 stories. In some chapters we zoom in to Katie, hearing the story told with her in the centre, and in others Mary’s story is at the forefront. Through Katie and Mary we’re able to piece together Caroline’s story and I think it’s a really special idea that as the middle generation Caroline has impacted both Mary and Katie’s lives enough that we never have to tap into her thoughts to obtain any of the story.
As well as the present day story, occasional chapters transport us back to key moments in the women’s lives, helping to fill in the blanks where memories have been forgotten. With no individual character narrating, the reader has access to an honest version of the truth making each character feel more real and their stories more raw.
Another unusual aspect of Unbecoming is that it’s split into 3 parts which Jenny says is for a few different reasons. Firstly, as a nod to 3 act play scripts (Jenny began storytelling when she worked with an improv. group); secondly to signify time periods (Unbecoming is set in the summer holidays with each part loosely covering 1 week); and thirdly, Jenny says that the parts (getting smaller each time) represent Mary’s deterioration.
I was bookselling this weekend at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference and Jenny was the speaker at the Gala Dinner on the Saturday evening. During her speech she spoke about growing up thinking that because her mum never read a book, she couldn’t ever enjoy stories. It wasn’t until her mum was suffering from dementia and would tell stories to make sense of the world around her that Jenny realised that stories are a part of everyone. This experience is portrayed in Unbecoming through Mary, who shares stories from her life with her granddaughter Katie. The relationship that they develop as a result is really beautiful and is one of my favourite aspects of the book.
I really, really loved Unbecoming and it’s a book that I will definitely revisit. The characters and stories are so beautiful that your heart will burst with love with every page that you read. I honestly can’t recommend this book highly enough – it’s just so completely amazing!