What I Was (by Meg Rosoff)

9 10 2010

I remember the glowing reviews that Meg Rosoff’s debut novel How I Live Now inspired. I only read it a few years after it was released and I soon figured out that I had made the mistake of raising my expectations just a tad too high. I remember liking How I Live Now (Rosoff’s magical touch to reality is quite endearing), but I also remember I expected more of a book with such glowing reviews, not to mention a string of awards like the Guardian Award and the Michael L. Printz Award. With What I Was,  the only point of reference was my previous reading of How I Live Now.

The first thing that came into my mind while I was reading, was: “Are all British writers infected with the history-virus?” I mean, these Brits, they are all almost obscenely obsessed with nostalgia, and the idea of this idyllic past that never was (and often that’s the writers’ own conclusion too). Obviously, I’m grossly exaggerating here, but in so many (contemporary) adult and young adult British novels I’ve read, history and the changing landscape of the British isles plays a predominant role (Siobhan Dowd’s Bog Child, Linda Newbery’s The Shell House, Mal Peet’s Tamar to name just a few).

Anyway, I’m straying… What I Was… The title in itself refers to some sort of historic event. In this case, it’s is not a good past, but a bleak past of boarding schools in East Anglia in the 60s… There’s nothing of London’s swinging sixties here. It’s doom, it’s gloom, it’s getting kicked out of boarding school, it’s the East Anglian cliffs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’d been raining all the time either.

The story itself is quite… unsettling, to be honest, but more about that later. What I Was tells the story of the friendship of the (initial nameless) 16-year-old narrator and Finn, the almost unseemly beautiful boy he meets during a school run. To the narrator Finn lives the ideal life: like a 1960s Robinson Crusoe, he is alone, near the beach and sustains himself by fishing and working at the local market. Officially, Finn doesn’t even exist: there are no records of him anywhere. The narrator completely idealizes Finn, who’s not just utterly beautiful, but always remains completely enigmatic, to the narrator and the reader.  The narrator (I am purposely leaving out his name, because it’s too much of a clue to the end of the story, and it is actually quite fitting that the narrator remains nameless) quickly has only one dream: becoming Finn.  What ensues are explorations of the sinking coastline, with mysterious coves and ancient forts; an elaborate lie about the narrator’s holiday whereabouts to spend time with Finn and a dramatic climax along the East Anglian coastline.

The landmark dreaminess of Rosoff’s prose of How I Live Now is vividly present in this book as well. The language is almost magically dreamy at times, which obviously fits in nicely with the book’s themes of memory, loss, and nostalgia. The friendship between the narrator and Finn is – from the narrator’s perspective – quite innocent (it’s never sexual in any way). Obviously, this is not perceived as such by some of the boys at the boarding school. The unsettling nature of the story doesn’t really arise out of the friendship between the narrator and Finn per se, but in the way the narrator presents his story. There’s no outside voice that gives another perspective on the events. That’s OK, of course, but even with just the narrator’s idealized image of Finn and the events, I found myself completely disliking some (if not most) of the choices the narrator made. The way he wants to do what Finn does, be what Finn is, even think like Finn, is… well, disturbing (and actually quite pathetic at times). Finn’s innocence is charming, and despite his enigmatic nature, the friendship and love he offers the narrator is unconditional and I can’t shake the impression that the narrator took grossly advantage of this.

What I Was is a strange little book. It’s dreamy and nostalgic, in both style and content, but it also raises some ever pertinent questions about love, friendship and the loss thereof.   It’s definitely not perfect, but just like with How I Live Now, I can’t quite put my finger on it…

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5 01 2014
Picture me gone (by Meg Rosoff) | Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] Now as well, even though I couldn’t really put my finger (paw) on it, gave her another shot with What I Was, but now…  The closest I get to describe what I feel about Rosoff and her novels is that I […]

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