Meg Rosoff: What I Was (2007) A Very Poetical Novel

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.

16 thoughts on “Meg Rosoff: What I Was (2007) A Very Poetical Novel

    • Young Adult, like Twilight. That is also said to be YA. And 13 Resasons Why. An absolutely great novel. If you have a girl, let her read it before she turns 14. I would have been glad if it had existed when I was that age. Anyway. Meg Rosoff is different. The style is very sophisticated, nothing like Twilight. I read a few reviews of younger poeple and they said that they didn’t get it…

      • Thanks for the explanation. That’s just the marketing word for “teenager” in the hope that adults will read them too. Adults want to be young but not as young as teenager, so they invented something in between. I hate political correctness.
        What I was is published by Hachette Jeunesse in France, it’s in the same category apparently.

        I’ve googled 13 Reasons Why (13 raisons en français). I’ll try to find it at the library. My daughter is too young for now to read about suicide. We’re currently re-reading Harry Potter, volume 2. I’m trying something new : I’m reading it too so that I can talk about it with her.

        • Political correctness is tiring. I don’t mind reading children’s books but was always reluctant to read books for teenagers. 13 Reasons Why does certainly focus on problems that young girls have when growing up but I thought that in its choice of topic it was quite daring. It is such a taboo… And it’s well done. It achieves to show how a lot of little almost insignificant things and carelessness sum up and how easily people harm each other. How old is your daughter? I didn’t like Harry Potter.

  1. Never heard of this one. Like the title. I have a suspicion that YA is becoming a catch-all phrase. I have come across this label–applied to books I would never have considered ‘young adult.’ YA tends to put me off (well it has in the past) as I tend to then expect ‘issues’ more or less dealt with and now passé. As I said though, I think YA is being overused–as is the term noir. It seems as though publicity depts say :’hey it’s a mystery. That makes it noir.’ When it isn’t at all.

    • I think you are right. And I had the same reservations before regarding the genre but since this is not the first time that I ordered one accidentally – and luckily – I might not rule them out anymore. Rosoff’s style is beautiful it has a dream like quality. The YA label is really a marketing strategy, maybe the editor tell themselves, if the adults don’t bite, then we get at least the young ones. I have seen on many blogs that there is a real YA cult, some reviewers, and not only very young ones, read almost uniquely YA. Admittedly the themes often sound very fresh… Like The Hunger Games for example.

    • I can’t really say why I didn’t like it. I read a lot of fantasy when I was very young and still like it and just think it is not as good as Lord of the Rings or many others like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. It doesn’t feel like proper fantasy, it has rather a thriller feel, fast-paced, not epic. Or childrens books like The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Graden… I like them all. The German writer Cornelia Funke seems very good. Your daughter (and you) would like it, I am sure. I started one of them and it seems excellent.

      • I can count on the fingers of ONE hand the number of sf or fantasy books I’ve read. I’m not attracted to them but I’d be glad to have a list for my daughter. So if you know a good blog on children’s literature, can you give me the address?

        • I know some who review YA regularly, they are on the blogroll Kailana’s The Written World and Fence’s Susan hated Literature and Carl V’s Stainless Steeldroppings. But YA isn’t for young children. I had a good link for children but I am not sure I bookmarked it. Will have to look.

  2. I adored Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, which was her first novel, I think. It was one of the most powerful novels I read that particular year. I must read more of her work. This sounds very good.

    • From what I read in newspaper articles and readers reactions this seems to be even better. I want to read How I Live Now as well. I love her style, it is so beautiful. And the way she describes or rather illustrates emotions is powerful and very original.

  3. I’m not at all familiar with this author, but this does sound very good. I rarely pick up YA novels, but when I do I am often surprised by how sophisticated they are. It makes me wonder what exactly I was reading as a teen or maybe I’ve just simply forgotten. A lot of books are crossover either way I think–a lot of adult books are easily read by teens and vice versa.

    • She really is worth discovering. I just ordered the one litlove mentions. I really think it is a marketing strategy as well. I still have many of my teenager books and even remember them. Many were so well written, I’m sure I could re read them. I think the tricky part when writing YA is not to have older readers but to really fascinate the younger ones. I read somewhere that writing children’s books is extremely difficult.

  4. Hi Caroline, thank you for the lovely review. I’m guessing you’re in the US on the basis of the cover, and you’re right that the whole YA thing is kind of a nightmare. My first book, How I Live Now, was published for YA, but my publisher in the US now is Viking adult — basically, no one knows what to do with my books, possibly because they’re ABOUT adolescence but not really for anyone who isn’t already reading pretty sophisticated stuff. And of course in order to sell books, publishers need to able to say, ‘this one is just like…(fill in the blank).” It’s tough for them too!
    So I just keep toodling along, writing the books I want to write, and hope people like you find them occasionally. So thank you.

    • Thank you so much for visiting and the kind words. I love this book and already got another one here. Yes, this YA thing isn’t so good in your case. I could imagine young readers having a problem to understand it. I didn’t look how it is marketed in Germany.
      I try to upload the cover of the book I have read but couldn’t find it. I am actually located in Switzerland! I know the German market very well as I used to work for a big German editor. Some books that could do with a YA marketing do not get it and then yours who shouldn’t does. I am one of those readers who has found out how many really magical novels are labelled YA and just don’t care. I read what appeals to me regardless of the label.

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