|"But would you listen if I told you how quickly time
What I Was
It occurred to me the other day that if I really did love Meg Rosoff, maybe I should read more than one of her books. I'd only read How I Live Now (which is a masterpiece, to be sure) but she's written six other books. I'm not quite sure why I never got around to them before, but it's high time to remedy that.
What I Was is a very simple story. It opens with H, our narrator, explaining that he's a hundred years old and wants to tell us about a time in his life that changed everything. At the age of sixteen, he was shipped off to St. Oswald's boarding school for boys on the coast of England. H is smart, but not really good at anything. He hates the imprisonment of school but lacks the skills or knowledge to imagine anything different. But then he meets Finn, a boy living alone in a hut by the sea, and sort of falls in love with him. Their friendship changes the course of H's entire life.
I know what the summary sounds like, but this book went none of the directions I was expecting. It's not a love story in the classic sense, nor a romance (especially not in the way I expected). It's a coming-of-age story, both about H, and also, to a lesser (more surprising) extent, about Finn.
Rosoff is, of course, a beautiful writer. One of the reasons I was attracted to this book now, after putting it off for so long, is that I'm sick of YA plot. Don't get me wrong, I love YA, but they can get so repetitive and tiresome- there's a main character, they have a Problem, they meet A True Love, they Fight Something Against Them, etc. It's lacks a certain "literary-ness". Rosoff may be YA, but this book is literature. It's lovely and haunting and moving.
It's not perfect though. What I Was feels disjointed in parts, like we're viewing random scene's from H's life without comment. It also has feels very emotionally confused at times- the parts of the story that you'd expect to be powerful and moving feel glossed over, as though they just happened in passing. A character death feels like it's the same "volume" as a school play. I'm also not a huge fan of bits of the ending- I don't quite understand what happened in the years between H's days with Finn and his 100-year-old self. Incidentally, when I read the book, I accidentally skipped the last chapter. The penultimate chapter ends on such a perfect note that I assumed the remaining pages were author's notes and didn't notice until the following day.
I do wish Rosoff had given us more time with H at the end of his life, speaking to us from a world in which rising seas have eaten away at the land. Her writing is at it's best there, evoking bittersweet emotions about time and loss. What I Was was apparently inspired by A Separate Peace, but I've never read that so I can't comment on the similarities. What it did most remind me of though was Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. When H says "Time erodes us all", he's tapping into the same essence as Atwood's "Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown." They're writing about history, the choices in our lives that shape us, and what remains if there's no one left to understand how it all came to pass.