My own definition of the separation between YA and adult lit has until now been that adult literature may tell the stories of young characters, but adult novels are always written as if characters are looking back on their youth.‘What I Was’
by Meg Rosoff, is clearly labelled YA by the Spinebreakers logo on the back and the Carnegie nomination medal on the front. Yet the opening lines of the novel explain that the reader will be hearing a remembered tale, from the narrator who has now reached the ‘impossible age’ of a hundred, rather than from the lips in motion of a sixteen year old narrator:
‘…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.’
Once again young adult fiction beats back any attempt to define what makes a book YA.
This short piece of text that precedes the first full chapter of the novel also reminds the reader that they are being told a tale. I think this is important to keep in mind as the story progresses, because many modern books that feature a first person narrator don’t use framing to explain how their narrative comes to be written down on a page (most notably novels written in the first person present). ‘What I Was’ alerts the reader to the fact that they are hearing a story, and as the novel unfolds the reader hears more about the partiality of history and stories. I wondered if the inclusion of this first block of text was a pointed director. Is it meant to highlight the reader of the human unreliability of the narrator? Is it meant to remind readers to keep questioning Rosoff’s narrative? Is it meant to emphasise that when the reasonably sympathetic narrator says some questionable things, readers needn’t agree with everything in order to continue to sympathise with him? Questions, I has them.
The narrator tells the story of the one year he spent at the oppressive boarding school St Oswald’s when he met a boy called Finn who lived by himself on the beach. The story is told in the past tense and is heavily laced with the analysis of the older narrator. He comments on the behaviour of his younger self with the objectivity of distance and I agree with Angie, who wrote some close analysis of the narrators http://angieville.blogspot.com/2008/07/
what-i-was-by-meg-rosoff.html removed perspective, that it aids the book by adding wisdom and insight to the narrative. At the same time Rosoff manages to make the boy, who is described on the page, but goes unnamed until the end, so present, plausibly knowing and extremely self-aware that it’s easy to forget that this story is being narrated from a narrator with the benefit of hindsight. The narrator (unnamed until the end) is created as an especially clear sighted teenager and I wonder how much of what he self-consciously tells us about hi characters is the remembered analysis of a teenager too much in his own head and how much of it is newer, adult analysis.
The specifics of the story will be familiar to anyone who has read a lot of stories about male boarding schools in Britain (the plot twist will also feel familiar to these readers). An average narrator shames his father and disappoints his teachers. The school is bleak; he hates the food and the other boys. It feels like a traditional story of imprisonment, escape and adoration, with an old-fashioned boarding school backdrop; a most agreeable, familiar formula because it confirms ideas that are embedded into British cultural background (female boarding schools delightfully full of cake and bonding, male boarding schools pits of hell, according to my own reading).
Still, it’s hard to feel entirely sorry for the narrator. He’s very sympathetic and clearly his time at St Oswald’s signals that everyone has already given him up to the kind of averagely, unhappy lives they’ve taken on themselves. He’s almost automatically set him up as the underdog that the reader should care about (or sets himself up as the underdog as he is telling his own story). However, having a distanced, analytical adult narrator tell this story, means that the ordinary weaknesses of a sixteen year old boy are unsparingly examined and exposed. These failings are remembered and placed again in the context of sixteen year old importance, which makes them seem monumental. As the narrator’s imperfections are pretty common human errors (jealousy, minor cruelty, desperation) readers will recognise themselves in this character and empathise with him, but being flawed in these specific ways may make readers unlikely to describe the character as likeable (probably because he cuts a little too close to the weaknesses of many people’s adolescent self).
Reading a character that shifts between being sympathetic and unlikeable is an interesting experience. The narrator despises Reese the one boy who wants to get close to him, because Reese’s adoration makes him appear weak. He shuns Reese. Then when he is presented with his own personal Jesus in the shape of Finn he struggles to keep from being pitifully over attentive. He is lucky that Finn is much more accepting than he is and when I was reading I found myself relieved for him when Finn returned his friendship. At the same time I disliked his attitude towards Reese. For me, ‘What I Was’ provided a useful reminder about compartmentalisation when reading and meeting characters. I don’t have to like everything about them to feel for them and they don’t have to be saints to be good people.
Hearing the story of a less than perfect main character did, however, leave me wondering if I should be questioning his version of events at times. This is probably partly down to my own reading baggage (I’ve read ‘Engleby’
and ‘Gentlemen and Players’
which both boarding school stories that feature main characters who aren’t always the nicest and turn out to be unreliable narrators). Finn’s lack of input into the story again made me wonder if I was meant to question the way the tale is being told. Famously books with a voiceless/inactive character have been taken up for revisionist interpretations that offer to tell a more truthful tale. Again, is this a product of my reading baggage, or is the novel offering deliberate clues? A sentence towards the end of the novel, where Finn has disappeared and the narrator tells a girl his name is Finn suggests that the narrator is involved in some nebulous dealings with his own identity, but I’m not sure how far this goes. Is the narrator’s story entirely fabricated, is he ‘Finn’, or is it just that at the end of the book he superficially ‘becomes’ Finn as a metaphor for his growing confidence? Early on in the book he says ‘It wasn’t even that I longed to see
him so much as to be
him’, which I took at face value, as an understandable wish of a self-conscious boy who wants to be more at ease with himself, but does it go deeper, or am I reading too much into that do you think?
I feel like I’ve been quite hard on the narrator. I don’t mean to be. I understanding him and I think he deserves compassion, because I was flawed in very similar ways to him when I was growing up and growing up is hard. So, let me end by showing you just how special his relationship with Finn was, despite anything that ever came between them:
‘As it was, nothing happened except the two of us watching the sea come in and go out again, listening to the birds, sheltering from the rain when it came in and lying silent as the sky changed from blue to white to gold. For hours we lay side by side, breathing softly together, watching thin rivulets of water run down the cliffs and into the sea, feeling the world slowly revolve around us as we leant into each other for warmth – and for something else, something I couldn’t quite name, something glorious, frightening and unforgettable.’
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