Book review: ‘What I Was’ by Meg Rosoff

What I WasWhat an intriguing little book.

I knew from experience that Meg Rosoff doesn’t pen your “average” young adult fiction; indeed, How I Live Now was one of the more offbeat, compelling and disturbing YA books I’ve ever read. I finished it almost four years (!) ago, yet I can recall certain passages and turns of phrase all these books later.

In the vein of the colorful, unusual and incredibly well-written is this slim novel: What I Was. The tale of H, our relatively unnamed narrator, and his long-ago friendship with Finn, Rosoff’s story is an exploration of friendship. A confusing, focused, odd and all-encompassing friendship, perhaps, but still just a friendship at its core.

It’s hard to do this book justice — or discuss it without spoilers. So much happens, but there is little discernible “plot” in the traditional sense. H is a rapscallion (how often can one use that word?!) used to getting kicked out of prestigious boarding schools, and he expects he’ll face a similar departure from this one. Everything is a little boring, a little beneath him; he’s not interested in studying or readying himself for the future, or whatever it is young men of wealth and privilege should be doing. He simply doesn’t care.

And then, on a run with his classmates, he meets Finn. Moody, quiet and living a life of extreme independence in a small but well-cared-for hut on the water, Finn’s life is everything H wishes for himself — especially free from the prying eyes of professors and classmates. Though H doesn’t recognize his growing concern for Finn as what it truly is (until it’s too late, perhaps), we know that H has fallen in love.

It gets more complicated from there.

But not in the ways you’d expect.

Oh, the exquisite pain of wanting to discuss what happens in this book without spoiling it all for you. I will note that I had an awful spoiler-ish encounter with a review posted elsewhere, so I’m not going to do that to you. Even knowing what I knew going in (not everything, just some of it), I was still shocked by what transpired. In an impressive way. Rosoff is a master of revealing secrets slowly, then all at once . . . and you’re left gobsmacked that you could have missed something so obvious.

She’s just that good.

Though H is not a thoroughly admirable person, he’s a teenage boy. A teen boy with issues and problems and secrets weighing heavily on his shoulders, even if his natural defense is to laugh them off or lash out. I appreciated him as a narrator, enjoying his sarcasm and natural wit — and even when the chaos became too much to handle, I felt that this older-H telling us the story of this fateful year was an anchor. I held on to him.

The setting of What I Was — a crumbling British coastline — just added to the allure for me. Rosoff’s writing is rich in imagery, very atmospheric; we sense the damp and cold of Finn’s hut just as H does, and therefore appreciate the fledgling fire that much more.

Though this won’t go down in my personal literary history as a favorite, Rosoff’s story is fascinating and unique — something I’ve thought about often in the weeks since finishing.

4 out of 5!

Pub: 2008 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Literary Megs, volume four: Meg Rosoff

Sometime in the not-so-distant past, I got on a young adult dystopian kick — and, you know, of course I blame book bloggers for my introduction to a genre that has simultaneously captivated and horrified me. It all started in 2009 with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and quickly progressed to Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, a book which kept me up late at night in a cold sweat. A book I couldn’t stop buzzing about.

Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now was a book similar in scope but with a totally different feel. Set in an undisclosed future, it chronicles the life of 15-year-old Daisy, an American teen visiting her aunt and cousins in England when a war breaks out. We never know the nature of the battle, nor what’s really happening; it’s all a blur of Occupation, death, destruction and fear.

In the wake of it all, though, is love — and that’s the part that’s stuck with me. Regardless of whether or not it triggers your gag reflex, Daisy falls in love with her cousin, Edmond, and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen incest portrayed in . . . well, in such a believable way. Because Daisy and Edmond didn’t really know each other before her arrival in the UK, right? It’s not as though they were raised side-by-side in the same loving family, only later acknowledging their feelings for one another.

Have I intrigued you yet?

As I wrote in last year’s review, How I Live Now was a powerful read that has stuck with me — especially after my memory was refreshed in July. And who do we have to thank for that but Meg Rosoff, the book’s author?

Rosoff is an American writer based in London, according to Wikipedia, and has published numerous young adult novels since How I Live Now, which debuted in 2004 and garnered the Michael L. Printz Award in 2005. Other titles by Rosoff include The Bride’s Farewell, What I Was, Just In Case and Vamoose!.

Visit her blog and back catalog on Goodreads. And when you can? Pick up How I Live Now — I’d love to hear your thoughts.

“Literary Megs” is an occasional feature I do covering — you guessed it! — authors and books related to the name “Meg.” Past posts have featured Meg Cabot, Meggie from The Thorn Birds (my namesake) and Megan’s Island, a childhood favorite of mine.

Book review: ‘How I Live Now’ by Meg Rosoff

how_i_live_nowFifteen-year-old Daisy leaves the chaos of a world she knows — New York — for a completely new sort of chaos: one with her cousins in England. Desperate to get away from her father and new stepmother, who’s pregnant, Daisy hopes she’ll find some sort of salvation and calm away from the city.

Instead, she finds herself in the middle of someone else’s war.

Daisy resides with Osbert, Edmond, Isaac and their sister Piper, whom Daisy comes to rely on as a source of strength to carry on. After The Enemy invades, Daisy’s Aunt Penn is unable to return to her children and niece from a business trip in Norway. Left to their own devices, the kids manage to keep up the daily tasks of running their farm — and look to people in a neighboring village for news on the war. Time passes with the teens in a state of limbo — there’s no adult to order them about, but there’s also dwindling food supplies. It’s in this state of freedom — their absolute isolation — that Daisy is finally able to acknowledge the feelings she has for Edmond, sleepy-eyed and slow to smile. The love she feels for him suddenly eclipses all else.

But then the war comes home. The rag-tag groups of civilian armies in England start to roam the countryside, unsure of their orders in a nation now occupied by enemy forces. The kids are separated — and what follows is their attempt, often futile, to get back home.

Like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, How I Live Now was an important, powerful story. Told in a stream-of-consciousness style and lacking any quotation marks, this book is Daisy’s narrative — the way she recounts the days, weeks and months that led from her first meeting with cousin Edmond to their wandering around the countryside, starving and desperate, as The Occupation of England raged on. The novel is full of strong, sweeping imagery — much of it disturbing. There was such a sense of foreboding through the book, I actually felt my hands trembling as Daisy approached a farm, looking for survivors.

I knew this couldn’t end well. Or could it?

Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is simultaneously dreamy, moving, terrifying, surreal and realistic. It’s a survivor’s story — and that’s not limited to Daisy alone. Anyone growing up in the age of terrorism — which is all of us — looks at the world differently, and I could easily see parts of current American culture in the book, which is set in an indeterminate time. The war is never totally explained, though it seems like WWIII, but it doesn’t really need to be — nor does Daisy’s obsession with food and starvation, which is eventually altered completely.

Partly I wouldn’t be good old Daisy if I didn’t get my appetite back just when everyone else in the world was learning how to starve, and partly the idea of wanting to be thin in a world full of people dying from lack of food struck even me as stupid.

I also loved the title — it’s so provocative to me. How I live now brings home the point that nothing happens in isolation — that the experiences we’ve survived stay with us always, slung over our shoulder like a backpack. Regardless of how much time has passed for any of the cousins, the reality remains the same — they live now with the knowledge of all that’s come to pass, much in the way that we all live now in a world where little, to me, feels safe. We live now with the knowledge that we are vulnerable, and that bad things can happen to good people — but that doesn’t mean we stop caring, loving or dreaming. We live now knowing that we’re survivors.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0553376055 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website