Unbecoming - Jenny Downham



Three women - three secrets - one heart-stopping story. Katie, seventeen, in love with someone whose identity she can't reveal. Her mother Caroline, uptight, worn out and about to find the past catching up with her. Katie's grandmother, Mary, back with the family after years of mysterious absence and 'capable of anything', despite suffering from Alzheimers.

As Katie cares for an elderly woman who brings daily chaos to her life, she finds herself drawn to her. Rules get broken as allegiances shift. Is Mary contagious? Is 'badness' genetic? In confronting the past, Katie is forced to seize the present. 

As Mary slowly unravels and family secrets are revealed, Katie learns to live and finally dares to love. Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.


This novel is not an easy read, nor is it easy to classify in terms of reading age range. I suppose I would call this a crossover novel, but that seems too simplistic, even. In any case, the Downham has written a beautiful multigenerational tale, examining love, truth, lies, long-term illness, and familial estrangement. As Mary's alzheimer's progresses, Caroline becomes more aggravated and frustrated at Katie's increasingly erratic behaviour. The three women, and Chris (Katie's brother), attempt to rebuild familial bonds and pull their family back together.
[G]etting stories out of Mary was like trapping a wild animal. You had to be patient. You had to not let her see you were coming. You had to go cautiously down pathways, and if they were blocked you had to turn around and go back on yourself.
Downham's writing is beautiful, her world building superb, and her characters come alive within the pages of the book. Examinations of sexuality and mental trauma are nuanced, gently explored in greater detail from chapter to chapter, as time progresses, and as the characters themselves blossom. 
Simona was standing behind the counter cleaning the coffee machine. She was wearing a T-shirt and jeans and her work apron. Katie didn't knock on the window or make any sound--she simply stared at the bare arc of Simona's shoulder, at the place at the nape of her neck where her hair was shaved.
If you are looking for action, car chases, and explosions, you won't find them here. What you will find is deeply emotional human connection, anger, and frustration; you will find suspense and complexity, and human fragility, as well as resilience and healing. At its core, Downham's book is about family, human bonding, and the desire for truth, even knowing it will hurt.

Highly Recommended

(NOTE: This review is from an Advance Reading Copy - Out Feb. 23, 2016)

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