What I Was by Meg Rosiff
Published: January, 2008 (Viking)
Recommended By: Ana at Things Mean a Lot
I Categorized It As: Literary Fiction
My Rating: 5/5
I have been struggling, in my current fiction writing project, with capturing a sense of adolescent love and yearning. I remembered that What I Was did this beautifully so I re-read it.
From My Old Review:
As a very old man, Hilary finds that his mind drifts freely throughout his life, without an anchor. His thoughts return to the year he was sixteen, the time he first experienced love.
We are drawn back to that year, in 1960s England. He is in a boarding school, an institution that he sees as the last bastion of the crumbling British Empire. 🙂 Having been kicked out of several boarding schools, Hilary is wise to the system, and his expectations are low. Meg Rosoff created a unique voice; Hillary is bright, edgy, and incredibly witty. He also has few delusions about himself; he doesn’t fancy himself as any sort of hero. I was quickly drawn in, and I saw slight shades of Holden Caulfield.
Hilary’s parents put him in yet another boarding school, St. Oswald’s, which lies on the crumbling coast of St. Anglia. This is a novel in which the setting is actually a full fledged character in the story. The boys at St. Oswald’s, who are generally indifferent students, enjoy medieval history because of the nasty descriptions of bloodshed, mutilation, and torture. So Hilary is aware of the multiple layers of history in this little coastal area, right down to the crumbling Roman forts. And the descriptions of the tides, the coast, and the surrounding area are remarkable. It was so vivid, I could see, smell, hear, feel, and even taste it, and at the same time, the description of the setting had a dreamlike quality.
When Hilary meets a solitary, mysterious boy named Finn, living alone in a fishing hut, he is drawn to him, almost to the point of obsession, and he comes to love him. Finn is even more detached from the rest of the world than he is. Hilary longs to win his new friend’s approval and affection and to become part of the ebb and flow of his life.
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this book. It’s gorgeously written, and H’s character is well drawn. I love his morally ambiguous quality, his dry sarcastic wit, and his observations about the world.
He is a teenage boy whose character is largely defined by isolation and a lack of sense of self. He develops an intense crush on Finn and wants, more than anything to be with him — to be him.
I was struck again by the strong sense of place that I mentioned in my earlier review. There is also a timeless feel to many of the scenes, especially those depicting Finn’s lonely, survival-driven existence on the sea — a sense of blurring the boundaries between various historical eras.
This is a lovely novel, which I appreciated even more on the second reading. I really loved what Ana at Things Mean a Lot wrote about this novel — she described the aspects of this story that tugged at my gut:
What I Was is a beautiful story about love and longing and growing up. And about other things too, like memory and history and our collective blind spots. I … There was something about the emotions Hilary was experiencing that really spoke to me. It’s a bit unsettling, but I don’t think it’s uncommon for a young person to feel strongly drawn to someone and not being sure if they want them or if they want to be them. And that’s what happens in this book. Finn symbolizes freedom, and a kind of life completely unlike Hilary’s—and for that reason, desirable despite its difficulties.
- … sixteen years of carefully judged mediocrity. (p. 2)
- I rarely thought about the schools I’d left behind; whatever impression they made had been all bad — hard work, disgusting food, and a proud tradition of sadism. Getting ejected from the first had been effortless, requiring nothing more than an enthusiastic disdain for deadlines and games. Even without much of a reputation to uphold, they were pleased to see me go. Expulsion from the second required slightly more effort and the help of materials readily available from any school chemistry lab. (p. 15)
- He was almost unbearably beautiful and I had to turn away, overcome with pleasure and longing and a realization of life’s desperate unfairness. (p. 19)
- My experience of the world came from comics and detective stories and Hitchcock films starring American actresses with stiff blond hair. The rest of the time I spent staring at teachers or out of windows, or at obscene scribbles on lavatory walls. Despite my exquisitely tuned indifference, my life telescoped down to a few sad little desires: to have second helpings of food, to wear clothes that didn’t itch or cause undue humiliation, to be left alone. (p. 24)
- It was much easier to get inside his brain than Finn’s, despite the fact that his psychopathic tendencies took me to places I’d rather not go. (p. 43)
- He accepted love instinctively, without responsibility or conditions, like a wild thing glimpsed through trees. (p. 51)
- My head and stomach felt odd, my hands trembled, I had forgotten to speak normally and was too agitated to eat. (p. 106)
- I was hypnotized by the simple grace of whatever it was he did and however it was he did it. (p. 120)