Review: Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

unbecomingSince becoming a parent, relationships between mothers or fathers and their kids in fiction have been a source of particular fascination to me. For this reason, Jenny Downham’s Unbecoming really appealed to me: it’s the story of three generations of women in one family and the issues that arise when they’re all thrown together in one house. The novel begins in a hospital, with seventeen year old Katie and her mother, Caroline, unexpectedly summoned to collect Caroline’s long-estranged mother, Mary, who is suffering from both Alzheimer’s and the loss of her partner. Caroline is displeased, to say the least, but is forced to take Mary home, and it is this event which drives the plot through long-hidden family secrets, simmering resentments and dramatic revelations.

Unbecoming is one of those books which makes me wonder what YA actually is; half the novel is devoted to an elderly woman and her fading memories of life in the 1950s, which seems to me more fitting for an adult readership, although I suppose the great strength of YA at the moment is its ability to engage both teens and grown-ups. Some YA books, like Beautiful Broken Things, for example, have made me question how a teenage reader responds to the presentation of parents, and Unbecoming does this too. Although the whole novel is narrated in third person, the story alternates between Katie and Mary’s perspectives, with Caroline never being allotted her own narrative voice, and I think this has a really big impact on how the reader perceives her. Initially, she’s almost unfeasibly self-centred, passive-aggressive and cold, frequently dismissing Katie by saying, “ I can’t deal with this,” or “I don’t need this right now.” Her reasons for resenting Mary become clear throughout the novel and their relationship is fascinatingly complex, but, at the outset, Caroline is a pretty straightforward character in terms of her unpleasantness. I imagine that a young reader would see her as a nightmare; she harasses Katie constantly about doing homework, expects her to shoulder the responsibility for chores and looking after her brother, and demands to speak to the parents of a classmate having a party to check there won’t be alcohol. I’m a mum though, and, as with Beautiful Broken Things, I found myself sympathising with the uncool parent; while I think Caroline goes overboard with the academic pressure, her protectiveness is understandable. Yes, she’s a martyr, talking a little too much about how much she has to do and how it’s for everyone else’s benefit, but I sometimes sound like that when my husband has worked late for a couple of days and I’ve had to do parenting solo for 12 hours; Caroline is a single, working parent and I think it takes a grown-up to realise how bloody hard that must be. I would have loved to see more of Caroline’s perspective in the novel; for me, she’s the most interesting character.

A trend I see creeping into YA is the trendy, sweary grandparent, which I’m never entirely convinced by. Mary, by contrast, is a fully believable character, epitomised by the title: “unbecoming” is an adjective levelled at her in her youth, as she kisses boys and embarrasses her family, and in the novel’s present, her Alzheimer’s means that she is literally “unbecoming” herself. Downham handles this aspect of the novel beautifully, accentuating the tragedy of Mary’s dwindling memory without ever over-sentimentalising; the description of the notes that Mary’s late partner left around the house to help her, in particular, is genuinely touching. The relationship between Mary and Katie is lovely, and effectively juxtaposed with Katie’s disintegrating relationship with her own mother. The text Unbecoming most reminds me of is Kindertransport, the play by Diane Samuels which, similarly, focuses on the relationships between three generations of women; Samuels also employs dark secrets, fracturing bonds and interesting female characters, in comparable ways to Downham. Both texts, for me, demonstrate all that is brilliant and terrible about being a woman and being with other women, using both intense emotion and intense lack of emotion to highlight the expectations and struggles of just being a woman.

Overall, I’ve got a lot of time for Unbecoming. I think it depicts ideas which aren’t particularly prevalent in contemporary YA and it does so with conviction and sensitivity; there are lots of issues here, some of which I haven’t even mentioned, but the story never seems heavy-handed or overly loaded down with tragedy and conflict. I am really happy to have read something so densely populated with fully-developed female characters, all of whom are sympathetic and repellent in their own ways; aside from the central trio of Katie, Mary and Caroline, there is a fascinating supporting cast (although “supporting” is perhaps the wrong word given the amount of dispute in the story) of ex-friends, sisters, adopted mothers and enigmatic waitresses. Unbecoming is a book about family, about love, about forgiveness, and it’s one I really recommend.

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