April 2024
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Review: What I Was, Meg Rosoff

Hilary, now an old man, takes the time to reflect on one year of his life in a boarding school – the year he found love.  He was a troubled child who often resisted authority, longing to be something he was not, and as a result had ended up unpopular and unsuccessful in different schools already.  On a run with his entire school, he discovered a boy who lived by himself on the coast of East Anglia, where the water is slowly creeping up on the land.  Hilary immediately did his best to cultivate a friendship with the boy, Finn, finding himself compelled to spend more and more time in Finn’s tiny cottage, totally unaware of the effects his friendship would have.

I am not honestly sure where to begin this review.  I’ve let this book percolate in my head slightly too long, I think, for my thoughts to be coherent to anyone but me.  I can say what I loved most about this book was the perfect way it captured teenage awkwardness.  Meg Rosoff’s writing perfectly encapsulated everything Hilary was feeling – I could almost have been him. The fact that the book was narrated by Hilary’s older self remembering makes it all too poignant.  I’m far from old, but my teenage years have already begun to take on a similar gloss, a comparison between what I thought I knew was true then and what I know to be true now.  I’m sure it will only become stronger as the years march on.

There is an air of mystery surrounding the entire book.  The narrator’s name is scarcely mentioned – it took a lot of searching before I found out what it actually was in order to write this review.  And Finn, too, is a mystery – a character who barely speaks yet embodies virtually everything to Hilary.  Hilary’s unsure whether he’s in love with Finn – and resisting his newfound homosexuality – or simply wants to be Finn, which he’s clearly more comfortable with and makes efforts to actually do.  Rosoff never explicity spells this out, though, but merely gets it across with Hilary’s actions and thoughts.

I loved the book’s focus on history, too, Hilary’s awareness of the continuity of life.  Things change constantly and his ruminations on history only remind us that what he’s going through will be over, too.  The coast will continue to vanish and the remains of Roman forts will soon be taken away by the ocean.

There’s a twist at the end of the book which turned it all upside down, but I thought it just fit.  I knew something was going to happen and I’d considered the idea at the start, but when it happened I was still surprised.  I don’t want to give it away because the book’s pull won’t be nearly as powerful if you know the ending – there’s a constant, looming sense of almost dread throughout most of the book, a focus on the frailty of our lives.  Ties in well with the history, doesn’t it?

Anyway, I’m not actually sure I preferred What I Was to How I Live Now, but it was certainly thoughtful and addictive.  Rosoff’s writing is beautiful and perfectly emulates the teenage mind – I can’t wait to read more of her work.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.


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