|Image from goodreads|
I am a century old, an impossible age, and my brain has no anchor in the present. Instead it drifts, nearly always to the same shore.
Today, as most days, it is 1962. The year I discovered love.
I am sixteen years old. (1)
You know how you wait months and months for summer vacation, and when it finally arrives you take in a huge breath, let it out, grab a cool drink in a perspiring glass and go outside to lie in the sun, with the grass tickling your legs and bugs crawling over your arms as you drowse, content in the illusion that you are far away from the rest of the world?
That’s how reading one of Meg Rosoff’s books is like. This was my second experience with her, and reading her again felt like going home and throwing myself down in the backyard in happy anticipation of what’s to come. Except you do so in the knowledge that the experience will also be bittersweet. Rosoff is Master of Bittersweet. You will enjoy her, butthere will be pain.
What I Was is the story of an unnamed narrator (let’s call him H for hero) who has been kicked out of two boarding schools, and is being carted off to St. Oswald’s, a rural boys’ school in the middle of East Anglian nowhere, by a very frustrated and unimpressive father. The narrator feels the same way. Frustrated by the mundane repetition of his middle-class existence and the unimpressive dealings of his schoolmates, H puts in negative amount of effort in school, uncaring of whether he’s accepted or expelled.
“When it came to opinions, I was (I am) like the sword of Zorro: swift, incisive, deadly. My opinions on the role of secondary education, for instance, are absolute. In my opinion, this school and its contemporaries were nothing more than cheap merchants of social status, selling an inflated sense of self-worth to middle-class boys of no particular merit.” (8)
At St. Oswald’s however, it becomes imperative that he stay. In this out of the way area, he finds something that captures his attention and sparks his imagination. A hut by the sea, occasionally insulated by tides, houses the reclusive and enigmatic Finn. Quiet and mysterious, gentle and resourceful Finn brightens our hero’s existence in a way H never could have anticipated. Tagging along with H, I felt pulled into the mystery surrounding Finn. Rosoff’s storytelling is deft in the sense that the curiosity that both the reader and H feel is subtle – or perhaps it’s in the way that Finn reveals himself little by little. In any case, there was a slow magic that pervaded the whole narrative, with the story unfolding in a lazy, muted pace that left me wanting it to go on for longer than it did. I was content to bask in Finn’s glow, just as H was.
“The featureless trundle of my existence began to change. At the time, I didn’t have the insight to wonder at the transient nature of despair, but now I’m older I’ve seen how little it takes to turn a person’s life around for better or for worse. An event will do, or an idea. Another person. An idea of a person.”(36)
Unfettered by the restraints of societal obligations and necessities, Finn seems to lead a dreamlike existence, fishing for food and tending to his little hut, with no bother from the outside world and only a cat as a companion. He is everything that H wants to be, and everything that H wants in another person – free of society, free of obligations – it seems nothing ties him to the real world. Finn’s little lone hut by the sea only adds to the feeling of timelessness that (I think) Rosoff is especially adept at achieving. I’m always a little startled when something like a telephone – or anything indicative of the time period – is mentioned. I then have to remind myself of the reality of the novel. There’s a fiction within Rosoff’s fiction that manages to cocoon you more than you already are.
|No huts or Finns to be found at this beach, sadly.|
“The sky was a uniform grey and bled seamlessly into the sea at an invisible horizon. There was no up, no down, no past or future. Aside from the far-off ghost of a coal boat chugging its way from Newcastle, I could have placed myself in the seventeenth century, or the seventh.” (38)
Finn seems to nullify everything that H believes and knows to be true. Finn’s existence, apparently so devoid of definitions, urges H to question his own perceptions and redefine himself as well as his view of the world.
Finn’s presence in the story becomes a question of perceptions, a micro-study on how society would have us view each other, as well as ourselves. The twist that follows – being entranced by Rosoff’s writing, I only figured it out moments before it was revealed – brings into focus the title of the book. The story’s final whisper is that it matters not what H was in loving Finn, that in fact he shouldn’t have to be anything in loving Finn – the only thing that matters, the only thing that H was, was in love.
“I can be there again now, huddled in a private pocket of warmth as the fire dies and the hut cools, snug against the roar of wind and sea, wrapped in blankets permeated with Finn’s smoky-wood smell, and always aware of the other presence in the loft above me, mysterious and powerful as an angel. After all these years, I can barely think back to that night without succumbing to emotions both wonderful and terrible, to a feeling as deep as the sea and as wide as the night sky. It was love, of course, though I didn’t know it then, and Finn was both its subject and object. He accepted love instinctively, without responsibility or conditions, like a wild thing glimpsed through trees.”(49)