Saturday, 20 May 2017

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham, reviewed by Pauline Francis

Saturday, 20 May, 2017


This novel comes with a weight warning if you are thinking of taking it to read on holiday as a book. It’s a massive read at 450 (gripping) pages.

Unbecoming is a complex story spanning three generations within the same family: three women with three secrets. Katie, the youngest, is studying for ‘A’ levels and feels that her sexual orientation is shameful and must be kept secret; her mother, Caroline, who has been deserted by her husband and is struggling to cope with Katie’s younger brother, Chris, who has special needs; and Mary, the grandmother, who has hardly been part of Caroline’s life and now needs to be looked after as she is in the early stages of dementia.

This story begins in the present with a telephone call from a hospital. Will they collect Mary?

Caroline agrees reluctantly to keep her mother with them until other arrangements can be made -  if Katie is willing to help.

She is – and she is slowly drawn into digging up the family secrets which both tear the family apart and pull them together. Katie’s need to know is the driving force of this novel. She threads together fragments of old stories and legal documents. Her question is always: Why is my mother so hostile towards her mother?

As for Mary, she says half-way through the novel: “This memory game was getting dangerous.”

There are two narrators in this novel and therefore two points of view: Katie and Mary. Some of Mary’s are set in the past, especially 1954, when she gives birth to an illegitimate baby (Caroline). This is cleverly pre-echoed in 1948 when Mary’s father berates her for kissing the boy next door. There is also a ‘good’ sister, Pat. What is her part in this story?

Unbecoming is a refreshing and original way of looking at secrets and lies. Katie is desperate to hide her own sexuality, yet she expects to hear the truth from everybody else around her. This is a steep learning curve for her. Caroline clearly resents her uncaring mother, yet she is jealous of Katie’s attempts to help her grandmother, and resents Katie for not helping her enough when their father left.

Everything, in time, floats to the surface.

Unbecoming is not a depressing novel. Mary has a great sense of humour and is more than a match for her grandchildren. I was annoyed by her harshness towards her daughter, the way she made fun of Caroline’s nervousness and lack of confidence; but this was Mary’s way of getting back at her sister, Pat. The relationship between the sisters is honest and moving, especially when we learn about Pat’s fate.

We do not know what will happen to our main characters. The reader is left with a strong feeling that they are still developing in their fictional world and that we’ll meet them again.

Katie, our full of secrets detective, has the last line:

“She was bound to stumble, but if she did – she’d pick herself up and try again. Just like Mary. Just like Mum and Chris and everybody else.

Works in progress, all of them.”

Unbecoming would appeal to older teenagers and I imagine it being handed on to other members of the family.

I like the title very much. Unbecoming (behaviour) and un-becoming are skilfully woven throughout.

Pauline Francis


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