REVIEW: Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

This is the third of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS.

Unbecoming chronicles the lives of three generations of the same flame-haired family. Seventeen year old Katie is sensible, reliable, trapped – and she’s just done something unusually daring. Katie’s grandmother has her memories, about all the boys she ever kissed, her baby, her sister, and the reason she has been absent for so many years. But she’s starting to forget her stories faster than she can tell them. Caroline, Katie’s mum, Mary’s daughter, is their silent centre, tired and secretive. All three women are living their own struggles, but together for the first time in years, there might be a chance to bridge the gaps between past, present, and future.


This novel’s scope is huge, encompassing decades. Through Katie, Caroline and Mary we experience birth, death, first love, sisterhood, sex, joy, despair – all the many mysteries of the heart. Despite its sweeping scale, this is a novel of intimaciesUnbecoming is concerned almost entirely with family dynamics, and they are carefully observed in a way that feels authentic.

There is no simple relationship to be found here, though there is a lot of love. There are veins of real beauty threaded through the open heart of this book. I had to stop reading the part with the funeral, because I was at work and didn’t want to cry so much.

It was only one man who had gone, but it felt like forever, something so permanent and unstoppable that it blasted her. If she were a tree, she would drop all her leaves.

I would have loved to see more of Jack and Mary, because everything we got of them was so sweet and moving, but as it is, their relationship is an uncomplicated oasis. Everyone else simmers with resentment and misunderstandings and secrets.

Mary’s storyline was my favourite by far, and I enjoyed the chapters set in the fifties that tell the story of a fiery young woman and the dysfunctional family trying to put out her fire. One thing Downham does very well is developing robust inner lives for her characters. Each character tells their own version of the truth, and it’s a truth recognisable as their reality. It’s very easy to see how everyone involved thinks they are in the right, which adds to the realism of the relationships. Who tells your story, and having control of your story, are strong themes in Unbecoming. Katie spends most of the book hiding from the story being told about her, and only overcomes her fear when she realises she can tell it herself. This realisation comes after spending so much time retelling Mary’s story, and trying desperately to uncover Caroline’s, and by extension, her own.

I’m normally a big fan of LGBT stories just in principle, but I never connected with the contemporary storyline, which is about Katie coming to terms with her sexuality, via hot lesbian waitress Simona. Coming out stories are not going to stop being important any time soon, but I didn’t find this one compelling. Perhaps it’s just that the rest of the story is so intensely family-focussed, Katie’s relationships outside of the family were underdeveloped and did little to advance the plot? Either way, I appreciate queer representation in all its forms, but this particular example didn’t do very much for me. Also, the texts the characters send made me cringe. “PLSE CME HME”? The only excuse I can think of is that Katie is so sheltered from the rest of teenage world that she texts like her mum, but even then this is very upsetting to my eyes.

This type of novel is always going to be too slow for some, but the leisurely pace allows you to spend plenty of time with the characters and see how they interact. The only part of the pacing I didn’t like was the build-up to the big reveal: the memory that Mary had locked away. It resulted in an anti-climax because there was so little to reveal after all. It might have been monumental for the characters but it was a foregone conclusion for the reader. I wish we had had more of adult Caroline, because she is even more interesting after her confession, but as it is, she is mostly in unreasonable mother mode. (Isn’t it satisfying when Katie calls her out, though?)

Unbecoming is a slow burn meditation on family secrets and the power of memory. All of life’s marvels and mundanities are contained within these pages.


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