What 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!