Novels don’t have to be set in made-up worlds to be exciting. In Unbecoming, award-winning novelist Jenny Downham has given herself the luxury of more than 400 pages to build up this gripping tale of family discord and drama, and not once does she lose focus, let down her three central characters, or bore the reader.

Downham’s new novel is about a teenage girl, her mother and her grandmother just getting on with their daily lives, focusing on the dynamics between three women, each from a different generation, each with secrets of her own, and each struggling to understand the others and come to terms with events both in the past and the present.

Downham covers a lot of issues in this novel – peer pressure, divorce, lies, illness, old age. It could all have ended up a dry, dull read, but you’re in safe hands here – it’s anything but that.

Katie, 17, lives with her learning disabled brother and deeply unhappy mother. The three of them have recently had to move home after Katie’s father found himself a young girlfriend and walked out on his family. Katie works hard at school and is ambitious, but the recent upheaval has knocked her off balance.

Caroline, Katie’s mother, is determined to keep her daughter on track for success in her final exams, but her personal bitterness is making things difficult.

And there is another bombshell waiting around the corner in the shape of Mary, Katie’s grandmother. Mary has been out of the picture for a good number of years, but she now turns up in need of help. The old lady is suffering from the early stages of dementia, and can no longer live alone. Caroline has no choice but to let a stranger, who just happens to be her mother, into the already fragile family unit.

Mary’s arrival quickly upsets the already delicate family dynamic, stirs up memories, and threatens to unearth nasty secrets that will destroy what Caroline has been struggling to rebuild.

Unbecoming is beautifully and sensitively written, and Downham absolutely nails her three central characters. She has structured the book like an edge-of-the-seat thriller, but there are no heroes or villains here. Just three women with all their secrets, hopes and flaws trying to make the best out of what life suddenly throws at them.

An absorbing and honest read for older teens about family and the importance of being true to your own story.

Originally posted on YP by John Millen