Recently on Twitter, book journalist Anna James (@acaseforbooks) asked what peoples core taste in books was and if they could express it in only one tweet. My reply was “Beautifully written with complex, flawed characters who show us what it is to be human.” Later the same day I picked up Unbecoming by Jenny Downham to read, not realising that I had pretty much summed up the book in a tweet just a few hours earlier.
Unbecoming tells the story of three generations of women from one family: grandmother Mary who is suffering from dementia, mother Caroline, a struggling single parent with a son with learning difficulties and daughter/granddaughter Katie who at 17 is wrestling with her emerging sexuality. We also have a glimpse into the life of Pat, Mary’s deceased older sister who raised Caroline for most of her childhood.
The narrative skips between the present day and back to the fifties when Mary gave birth to Caroline plus various points in between. It’s a hefty book at 437 pages but it flows beautifully and reads easily.
All the adult characters have major flaws. Mary is promiscuous, selfish and unreliable. Pat is dull, too sensible and judgemental. Caroline is unforgiving, over protective of her children and a control freak.
What was remarkable about this book was that each character so was sympathetically written that you could love each woman for who they were and forgive all their imperfections. It was clear to see how circumstances and clashes of personality created the heart-breaking situation in the family and no single person, despite their shortcomings, was to blame.
A key part of the story and one that resonated heavily with me was when Katie was contemplating what makes a perfect mother. I won’t spoil what is said but gosh I could relate to it! Both from the teen point of view and now as a mother myself. None of us is perfect but we strive to do what we feel is right at the time.
This was a gorgeous book which has shot straight to the top of my list of Carnegie contenders for 2017.