What I Was by Meg Rosoff

January 25, 2010

Viking, 2007

Finished: January 20,  2010

Source: book blog

Genre: bildungsroman with futuristic first-person narrator device

On the Scales: no idea

How did I miss this book?  I have a routine: when I’m feeling dissatisfied with my reading, I get on the local library’s catalog and look up the names of authors whose books never fail me, just to see if they’ve come out with something new.  If one of them has, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.  If not, just seeing the names of books I’ve enjoyed in the past cheers me up.  Meg Rosoff is one of these authors, and yet somehow she was off my radar for a couple of years.  When I checked the library catalog after hearing about What I Was in one of my favorite book blogs, I discovered that I had missed not one but two new books!  I read Bride’s Farewell and got on the queue for this one.

Meg Rosoff writes short, dense novels with flawlessly paced prose and stinging emotional intensity.  I would be surprised they’re so widely popular, if it weren’t that they can be read on quite a few levels, by different kinds of readers.  Rosoff’s gorgeous descriptions can lull you into such a sense of well-being that you are a bit insulated from the awful things that are going on inside her people, and between them, and around them.  The main characters’ fortitude, also.  They take things so well, you tend to trust Rosoff to give them a happy ending.

And does she?  Yes and no.   If you can call growth a happy ending, yes, because all of her main characters grow in her books–but will they be happy?  Can anyone?  Are there endings?  That is left open to interpretation.

Sometimes, anyway.  Bride’s Farewell was brutal in its determination to de-romanticize mid-19th century England from the point of view of the poor rural classes.  Accomplished revenge sets the stage for a pretty definite ending, and not a happy one.  What I Was is a much more difficult and (on the surface) less harrowing book.

I have to admit I won’t be able to make head or tail of it until I read it again.  I absorbed all the text, understood all the action, but I’m not sure what it all meant.  I think it’s about identity, with a series of interlocking metaphors to illustrate her point: the images of the Medieval town that tipped into the sea and the receding coastline overtaking the little house on the beach; Oswald the historical saint and St. Oswald the boarding school in 1963–rotten relic of a punitive education system upholding a set of social norms that the main character finds unbearable.  These things actually held more weight for me than the schoolboy’s relationship with the nature-boy he comes to idealize.  The plot is somewhere between Pygmalion and Narcissus.  In being transfixed by Finn, Hilary is really being transfixed by a version himself; and in pouring so much emotion into his creation of Finn the counterfeit, he is bringing to life a situation over which he ultimately has no control.

Hilary tells his story from the perspective of a very old man, in a future where (we’re given hints), the planet is failing.  I feel that this is as important to the story as the strong sense of the medieval past that Hilary has in 1963, but I’m not sure how.  Maybe I could have had a try at working it out from the passage where Rosoff describes how the schoolboys’ insatiable appetite for the bloody tortures of the Dark Ages in their history lessons, but I’ve taken the book back to the library!

The other thing I’m not sure about is how to work in gender and sexuality–clearly important themes.  I wonder if you could say Hilary’s misinterpretation of self as other and vice versa has something to do with the “male principle” and “female principle” (hoary phrases, can’t come up with better) both being fluid and reversible and not ultimately relevant?  Erosion and destruction as necessary in history and persons, in order for the new to come.  (I love, love, love the passage describing the storm, when Hilary intuits that he must open the shutters and let it blow through or be broken by it.  Genius!)  Water as a destroyer.  A horrible patriarchal educational institution being a womb out of which something completely new is born, in one boy’s case at least.

And yet . . . I’m nervous about the course of his life after the events in the book.  It seems he never got over anything.  Lived stunted in a different way than he might have done, but stunted nonetheless.  Failed to learn the lesson his own life exemplified.  Memories of love aren’t enough to sustain one for a whole century; I suspect him of making an unreliable case for them in his old age.

6 Responses to “What I Was by Meg Rosoff”

  1. nymeth said

    This is my favourite Meg Rosoff book to date, though I’m sure there’s a lot there that I’ll need more readings to really grasp too. The gender thing – I agree with what you said about “male” and “female” not being as fixed or rigid as the world would have us thing, and also…I think in some ways, there’s a commentary on the still common assumption that male is the rule, and female the exception.

    Very thoughtful review – it’s only been a few months, but you made me want to pick it up again.

    • trapunto said

      “male the rule, female the exception”–yes. That just made me realize. So far Rosoff’s protagonists are 50% male, 50% female, but I never would have thought about her writing that way. I think she practices what she preaches, if that is actually one of her themes in What I Was. Her people are people first, and women or men, boys or girls, second. Which isn’t to say that they are stripped of gender, just that she takes a different angle into their heads.

      Thank you for your kind comments. It seems I have a blogging godmother who leads people to my site!

  2. Great blog and great review – I loved this book!

  3. Care said

    I’ve yet to read any Meg Rosoff but I think you’ve convinced me to seek her out – I think I have a few on my tbr. I need to revisit and move these up. Thanks.

    • trapunto said

      Thank you for visiting my site. I can count it my good deed for the day, if I’ve gotten someone to read Rosoff!

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