Jenny Downham Double Bill | Before I Die + You Against Me

Double Bill: Jenny Downham

Every once in a while I feel like writing a review doesn't fully convey my thoughts on a theme or on an author. I talk about one book and even though I might mention that I am a fan of the author or the genre, it's not the same! That is why, when I started a review of both Before I Die and You Against Me, I felt something was missing. I have just recently discovered Jenny Downham but I have fallen for her stories and her writing style. That is why I am combining both reviews in a "double bill"on Jenny Downham

Her debut novel, Before I Die, has been one of the most talked about young adult novel since its release, setting itself at the top of all "best YA books" lists of all time. With You Against Me, her second novel, Jenny Downham gives us something as raw, powerful and original as her first book.  

Jenny Downham really doesn't shy away from difficult subjects and her characterisation and plots always takes the reader in an unexpected direction. It might also be the foreign reader in me noticing but her novels are very much set in the British culture and gives us a realistic outlook on youth today in the UK.

Before I Die:
Before I Die is the beautiful and tragic story of Tessa who has just a few months to live. She has been diagnosed with cancer when she was a child and she has now received the news that there isn't much the doctors can do anymore for her. Tessa comes up with a list of things she wants to do before she dies so that she can feel alive. She ends up refusing treatments and visits to the hospital and just wants to do things she likes. She comes up with a list of all those things and wants to do each of them before she dies.

Heartbreaking doesn't even cover it, I cried for a good part of the book, and at times, I was crying and aching so much for Tessa that I had to stop reading. I feel that this book is an essential read for teenagers, not only because it raises awareness on what it is to live with cancer, but also because it shows the importance of life. Everyday life is plagued by little things without importance which sometimes become preponderant and it is easy to lose focus on what really is important. 

It is a beautiful and fascinating book through and through. The whole medical process is very well researched and there is no embellishing any sequence to make it more bearable to read. I absolutely loved all the characters, their personalities and the dynamics and relationships between them. The story is very rich and touches various subjects from teen pregnancy to drugs to sex to relations with parents and other. But all these subjects are treated with a very realistic approach. There is no underlying lessons-of-life-from-the-adult-writing in there nor a global judgement on the characters depicting them as either good or bad. And it's exactly that humanity in Jenny Downham's books that fascinates me. 

The theme of death and Tessa's fear of it is very interestingly written and the difference in insight on the issue between Tessa and the rest of them is just so very striking. Anyone can die all of a sudden because of an accident or other. But only a few people know that their death is close and this knowledge is so heavy to bear for Tessa especially when she can't seem to share it with people the way she would like to. I really can't encourage people enough to read this book. It is wonderfully written and Tessa's voice comes through to the reader very loud and clear. 

You Against Me:
You Against Me is a sort of modern-day Romeo and Juliet. The only thing Mikey and Ellie have in common is the relation their respective siblings have with each other. Ellie's brother Tom is accused of raping Mikey's sister Karyn. Tom is from a very rich part of town and is promised to a brilliant future, whereas Karyn and Mikey are from more modest origins, they live with their alcoholic mother and take care of their little sister.

As you would expect, Tom's parents are doing everything they can to save their son and discredit Karyn by showing her as an "easy girl". Mikey take girls as they come, the less they talk the better. But when he meets Ellie, in an attempt to get information on Tom to help Karyn's case with the police, he realises how different she is from the rest. Their respective problems with their families bring them together. Mikey and Ellie are very interesting characters and I really enjoyed the relation they had with each other. 

But you know what I really found interesting in this story? It talks about rape but not the kind of straight-forward rape story where a nice and innocent girl is walking in the street and gets sexually assaulted by a villain. It is the story of a girl who has been wanting to be with a guy and who has been flirting with him. They party together one evening and she drinks a lot. Sex happens. She says she wasn't conscious and didn't want to have sex. He says she has been wanting to have sex with him forever. 
And I find it truly fascinating how morally challenging the story is. There is no challenge for me, a rape is a rape. But how many people react as "she deserved it" when you see a story of  a prostitute dressed in high heels and mini skirt who was sexually assaulted? Or not exactly "she deserved it" but "she should have seen it coming" if a girl was dressed very sexily? And then sex is sex - so if you want it at one point in your life you shouldn't whine about "rape" when it happens at another time, right? 
That's what Jenny Downham is talking about in this book and she is doing it brilliantly. She puts the finger right on this issue. And that outlook on the rape feeds into this other fascinating theme in the book which is about women. Women today, women in this society. Look at Ellie, Ellie's mother, Karyn, her mother and the other female characters in this book. So many example of what it is to be a woman today. I am not going to get all feminist on you now, but if you are interested in the role of women in society, read this book. I was blown away by all these characters that I can't detail each of them and exactly convey what I felt. While reading You Against Me, I kept thinking about another book (Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma) I have read and which conveys a similar strong image on family. 


As you may have gathered by now, Jenny Downham's books tick all of my boxes. I love the irresistibly British feel the books have and the fact that the characters are all very human and real, as well as the themes she chooses to write on.

And on a bigger sclae, I am such a fan of this wave of British YA writers (and there are way too many for me to write all of them and not forget any!) who write on contemporary themes!

Thank you to Random House Children's Books for those two wonderful books!


  1. you are beautiful!

  2. Sounds interesting - have you read `Lucky by A Selbold` (who wrote the lovely bones) sounds like it deals with similiar issues to `you against me`-but its her real life account of her rape & then of her room mate at a later date.
    Not a patch on the lovely bones but worth a read.

  3. Awww... what a heartfelt post. I haven't read Before I Die yet. I think it will turn me into a big pile of mushiness. Really enjoyed You Against Me though. Such important topics that need to be discussed.

  4. I loved You Against Me but I stil haven't read Before I Die - sounds like I really need to bump it to the top of the list! Great reviews Caroline :o)

  5. Great review. I have read Before I Die - which is a very emotional book and am currently reading You Against Me simply because I really liked Jenny Downham's writing style.

  6. I have Before I Die, and can't wait to read. Now, it's going up the pile: you made it sound just like the kind of book I need to read! And You Against Me looks absolutely amazing as well. I can't wait to read them!
    Brilliant review!