February 2008

Benjamin Jacob Hollars


What I Was by Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff is no sissy. Shortly after receiving the Printz Award for her 2005 novel How I Live Now, she returns to the young adult scene with What I Was -- a stark, edgy portrayal of a sixteen-year-old boy whose life is suffocated by the stodgy pressures of St. Oswald’s boarding school. When he stumbles across Finn, a young person living alone at the edge of a sea, the narrator quickly latches on to his new acquaintance, attempting to find his own freedom by examining someone else’s.

The relationship between them can only be described as curious: curious to the reader, curious to the characters themselves. “It wasn’t even that I longed to see him so much as to be him,” the narrator explains. “I studied Finn the way another boy might have studied history, determined to memorize his vocabulary, his movements, his clothes…” Their dialogue is often stripped of everything but necessity, and all we really know of Finn is what we learn from the narrator’s assessments.

Finn’s character is complicated further by his sheer lack of emotion, described by the narrator as “a wild thing glimpsed through the trees.” But as we come to understand, every aspect of Finn could be described as some “thing” viewed in glimpses. Rosoff simply refuses to give us a clear depiction of him. “Everything I know about Finn came in fragments,” the narrator notes. The reader experiences the same shrouding of information, though in the end, it is for good reason. Just when we think we know him, we find yet another mystery rooted deeper. The only fact we can come to depend on is that Finn is never the same person twice. 

This idea of the ever-changing presence -- the ephemeral nature of characters -- is a theme which Rosoff toys with throughout the novel. At the start, we observe Finn and the narrator sifting through ancient Roman ruins -- an act which allows them their first look at mortality. Later, in the narrator’s retrospection, we learn that much of the book’s setting -- the Suffolk coast -- has been swallowed up by water in the decades since the friendship occurred. This “time stops for no man” mentality weaves throughout the story in various, subtle ways, begging the reader to question the long term effects of a friendship which, by the world’s standards, seems minor and incapable of permanence.

Not only does Rosoff tackle a complex theme in a book aimed for a young adult audience, but she displays her respect and admiration for the reader by telling an authentic tale despite the risks. Rosoff risks much by entertaining taboos ranging from pornography to lechery, and the much feared f-word in a story for teenagers. Yet these risks earn the readers’ trust in a manner that might have been impossible otherwise. With Rosoff, we can expect nothing less than an honest portrayal of a serious subject. What I Was shies away from nothing. She hands us the lantern. We glimpse what we can through the trees.

What I Was by Meg Rosoff
ISBN: 0670018449
224 Pages