If you've read my recent post about the SCBWI New York conference, you already know that after listening to Meg Rosoff's keynote address, I went to the conference bookstore at my first opportunity and bought two of her novels. They were HOW I LIVE NOW and WHAT I WAS - I thought the two titles created a nice symmetry.
I should interject here that although I felt drawn to Meg Rosoff's books, I in no way felt drawn to her personally. I found her ferocious and terrifying, which was fine when she was up there on a stage and I was down there hidden among the audience, but would not be at all fine if I were ever to meet her. I had no doubt that Meg Rosoff would eat me for breakfast, spit out the bones, and then, in her patented, somewhat ridiculous AmBrit accent (cf. that other SCBWI keynoter, Julie Andrews, who has probably lived in the U.S. much longer than Rosoff has lived in England, but still sounds as if she'd never set foot on any soil but the Queen's), demand of whoever was standing nearby a cup of tea laced with blood.
Anyway. I read HOW I LIVE NOW shortly after the conference ended. As agents delight in telling me after reading my submissions, I liked it but did not love it. This past weekend, I began reading WHAT I WAS. (Footnote: I know I'm coming late to the party. The book was published in 2008. But this blog is MY party, and so I assert my manorial privilege of arriving whenever I feel like it.) I finished reading the book this morning because I ran out of excuses to delay getting to the end.
As the title seems to suggest, the narrator is approaching the end of his long life and reflecting back on its most seminal period: the year he was sixteen. But how strange... He chooses to call his memoir not "Who I Was," but "What I Was," as if from a distance of 80 years he sees that younger self not so much as a person, but as a force, or perhaps simply an agent of a force. It does not seem to be an accident that two inexorable forces serve to underpin the book's entire narrative: history, which sooner or later will get everyone, and geography, which sooner or later, in the guise of the sea, will get everyone trying to live on the coast of East Anglia near St. Oswald's school for boys.
I knew as soon as I read the first paragraph that I had already fallen under the sway of this book and had no choice but to let myself get pulled all the way in.
"Rule number one: Trust no one.
By the time we reached St.Oswald's, fog had completely smothered the coast. Even this far inland, the mist was impenetrable; our white headlights merely illuminated the fact that we couldn't see."
Is there anyone, do you think, who could read that and then toss the book aside, saying "Meh?" If there are such people, I'm not among them. I was instantly lost in the story of the nameless narrator, a boy who is almost entirely lost to himself in an impenetrable world until the day he meets Finn and his true life begins. But, as he learns later, the beginning of his true life is also the beginning of the end of Finn's, and so the novel is both a deep, abiding love story and an elegy.
I was right: Meg Rosoff is both ferocious and terrifying. If she weren't, she would probably not be as qualified as she is to write about love.