The narrator of Carnegie Medal winner Rosoff’s latest and perhaps most perfect novel is a 16-year-old boy who has been expelled from two boarding schools and finds himself dumped in a third, near the Suffolk coast. The school is all arbitrary rules, pretentious tradition and routine bullying. But on the beach nearby the boy finds a fisherman’s hut occupied by beautiful, competent Finn, who is everything he wishes he could be himself: athletic, self-sufficient, able, free. The relationship that follows becomes an escape and an obsession, pure and transporting, and a turning point in a life remembered by the narrator at the age of 100. It makes us fall in love not only with Finn but also with the Suffolk coast, the land, the sky and the sea passionately described in airy and crystalline prose. It’s already a classic.
I wasn’t aware that I was reading a YA novel when I started Meg Rosoff’s hauntingly beautiful novel What I Was. It tells the story of a teenage boy but apart from that I don’t see why it is classified as YA. It is very lyrical, poetical and even mysterious. Rosoff creates a wonderful world, her descriptions are very atmospheric.
The novel takes place in 1962. Hilary is an old man now and looks back on his time at St. Oswalds boarding school. It is the third school in a very short time. He doesn’t really fit in, he hates the place, he doesn’t like the people. The description of the place had an almost gothic feel.
When Hilary meets Finn, his life changes. What follows is one of the most subtle descriptions and meditations on falling in love. Rosoff manages to show the complexity of the feeling in a masterful way. Don’t we always wish to a certain extent to be like the one we fall in love with? Isn’t the one we love not often an idealized version of our selves, a better part of ourself?
Finn lives all alone in a little fisherman’s hut, near the sea. His sole companion is his little grey cat. Finn is independent, strong, adept at many things. He is everything that Hilary is not. And very beautiful. Hilary is touched by Finn’s beauty in a very profound and even painful way. He compares himself and thinks that this is how he would like to look, how he would like to be. There is also a great transformative power in this kind of love. Through his feelings Hilary becomes every day a little more like Finn.
The fisherman’s hut is located in a very precarious position, threatened to be flooded at all times. Storms are a great danger to it. But it is also a very cozy little hut. Finn has a fire going all the time, he makes tea for them, cooks dinner. Finn likes to read and is interested in history. Through him Hilary discovers a lot he didn’t know.
The description of the landscape and the weather has also a very gothic feel. The sea is wild and seems to devour the land, the winds are howling, the storm is raging. At times I felt reminded of Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep, one of my all-time favourites. And once you know the story has a twist, even more so. I wasn’t surprised by the twist, I thought it was pretty obvious from the start but that didn’t dampen the reading experience. I truly liked this book and might very well pick up another one of her novels soon.
Has anyone read this one or another one of her books?
Should anyone want to know more about Meg Rosoff here is her website and blog.