Jenny Downham’s Young Adult novel about three generations of women has received rave reviews and I can absolutely see why. Unbecoming is a gripping read from the very first sentence.
“It was like an alien had landed. Really, it was that weird.”
Seventeen year old Katie’s estranged grandma comes crashing into her life in dramatic fashion. Mary has been left alone and in need of care after her partner dies suddenly. Katie knows nothing about the woman who abandoned her mother as a baby and can’t understand why her mum seems so reluctant to welcome this intriguing, imaginative older lady into their home when she’s so obviously in need of help. Katie’s mum has her own reasons to distrust Mary, besides her family is already quite complicated: Katie’s father has moved in with his girlfriend, whilst her younger brother Chris has complex, special needs. Katie herself is having a turbulent summer. Her relationship with her mother comes under strain as she begins to embrace her identity as a lesbian and experiences her first romance.
Mary brings fun, excitement and stories about the past into Katie’s life. She brightens up Katie’s dreary family life as together they work on piecing together the older woman’s memories. But Mary isn’t always easy to live with. Her Dementia means she requires constant care. Sometimes she remembers the past in short, lucid bursts. Sometimes she doesn’t know where she is or how to manage the simplest tasks.
“Every morning I think I can do things, and by the afternoon it turns out I can’t.”
Mary’s Dementia is at the stage where she understands that something’s gone wrong but doesn’t know how to fix it. She’s prone to wander away from home and sometimes has outbursts. She’s desperate to be reconciled with her daughter and her grandchildren but her scattergun attempts at explaining the past and her own mistakes often lead to more upset. Unbecoming is a novel which questions the very idea of truth. If Mary remembers things one way and her daughter remembers the same incidents differently, who’s to say which version is right and whether the confusion associated with Dementia renders the person remembering less reliable or more inclined to speak the truth without considering the consequence?
“Mary had her version of the time she came to stay and Mum had hers…All the threads bind and twist together. And every time you look it’s different, because stories change in the telling.”
This is an incredibly readable novel. I flew through its almost 450 pages. It explores a whole range of themes -intergenerational relationships, LGBTQ, feminist and mental health issues, alongside Dementia- through the central narrative arc of unpicking the complexities of Mary’s life. The third person narration allows Downham to give us an overview of every character’s perspective and also to dip frequently into the past. The writing is moving and eloquent and the ending, resolved enough to feel satisfactory, yet far from cheesy or forced. There are so many things I enjoyed about this novel but what I loved most is the honest, funny and occasionally irreverent relationship between Katie and her grandma. If anything, Unbecoming is a romance. It’s the story of two women separated by a family rift, finding each other in the nick of time and very quickly falling in love.
Unbecoming was published by David Fickling Books in 2015