In 1962 Hilary, the young narrator of this novel is packed off to St Oswald's boarding school for boys by his parents deep within the inhospitable plains of East Anglia. A school that has a reputation as a veritable hotbed of cultural mediocrity and is notorious for its long history and low standards, there's hope that St. Oswald' will somehow attempt to transform Hilary into a useful member of society.
Still haunted by his "last two educational disasters," Hilary does his best to create an environment where he can feel at ease. Jaded by the petty dealings of his fellow classmates, life at St Oswald's is anything but happy with the young boy considering the school nothing more than a cheap merchant of social status, "content to sell an inflated sense of self-worth to middle-class boys who are ultimately of no particular merit."
Hilary hungers for new experiences far from the bleak halls, the glares of authority and the taunts of his roommates. One afternoon, after stopping for a drink of water while running along the coast, Hilary meets the young Finn, a teenage boy who seems content to live a life like Robinson Crusoe. Self-sufficient and contented, Finn makes his living by hauling boxes at the market and he not only has no parents, but lives alone and doesn't go to school. According to the government, Finn doesn't actually exist.
Living in a small, cozy hut by the edge of the beach, with its floors free of sand, its worn cotton rugs and its crammed bookcases, the place is unassuming, comfortable and intimate, proving to be the perfect safe harbor for Hilary. While Finn's spirit is new and soft, the cottage is warmed by decades of use and almost at once, this eccentric reclusive young boy entrances this reject from St.Read more ›
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
ProvocativeFeb. 12 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
Publishers and the general reading public are finally getting wise to a truth that those of us who review young adult fiction have known for a long time: some of the best, most profound novels in recent years have been published in the "young adult" category.
Meg Rosoff is one of those novelists who has managed to transcend categorization as a writer solely for young people, and now her newest book, WHAT I WAS, is being published and marketed for an adult audience. Although it does not differ markedly in style or maturity from her earlier work, such as her award-winning post-apocalyptic novel HOW I LIVE NOW, WHAT I WAS should reach a deservedly larger audience thanks to Rosoff's publisher's decision to broaden her readership.
WHAT I WAS begins in the not-too-distant future, as our narrator (who remains nameless for most of the book), now an aged man on the brink of 100, rows along the coast of England with his young godson. Desperately trying to find and identify the landmarks of his youth, the narrator casts his mind back to the time he spent in this area when he was a student at St. Oswald's boarding school in the years after World War II.
As a boy, the narrator was a disastrous student. Asked to leave a series of boarding schools due to "the deplorable nature of my behavior and grades," the narrator's main failing is his inability to successfully navigate the social structures and power struggles that characterize boys' schools such as St. Oswald's. Thanks to the brutal bullying of his roommates and the benign neglect of the schools' authority figures, the narrator, thoroughly miserable, uses every opportunity to escape from the confines of St. Oswald's. It is on one such escape that he makes a discovery that will change his life forever.
The narrator discovers a remote cottage, set apart from the mainland, as it is only reachable during low tide. The cottage is set apart figuratively, too, as it seems to belong to an era of history long before the conflicts and political struggles of the 20th century. The narrator also meets --- and becomes instantly enamored of --- the cabin's sole occupant, a boy of about his own age named Finn. Readers will find themselves asking whether the narrator is obsessed with Finn because he loves him or because he wants to be him and all he represents, set as he is, far apart from the daily torments of St. Oswald's and society in general.
There is a lot to digest in Rosoff's latest novel. Questions of sexuality, friendship, identity and love are raised, as is the question of fate. Most intriguing is its exploration of history. The author intentionally posits Finn as leading a pre-modern existence, a simple way of life analogous to the alluring Dark Ages the narrator studies in school. Contrasting this with the power-hungry, social-climbing, rule-abiding 20th century in which the narrator reluctantly finds himself, Rosoff constructs a sort of allegory of history embodied by two very different young people.
WHAT I WAS is not perfect --- an implicit warning about global warming seems out of place, as does the narrator's callous indifference to the fate of one obnoxious classmate --- but it is provocative. Using a dreamy, elegiac tone that captures an old man's recollection of his youth, Rosoff nevertheless evokes youth's indiscretions and obsessions every bit as capably as she has done in her more typical "young adult" titles. Mature teens will still find much to ponder here. More importantly, adults who see this novel in the general fiction shelves may be inspired to pick up Rosoff's other work and discover what those of us who enjoy young adult literature have known all along.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Great book with a surprise twistNov. 26 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
Imagine that Harry Potter never found out he was a wizard, that he continued to live a pathetic little life of no consequence in a drab corner of England where nobody really cares about much beyond keeping up appearances. Then you would have some idea of the main character of Rosoff's outstanding novel. He gets dumped by his family in a charmless school for boys, the kind of place that would still have him after failing to measure up in previous institutions. By luck he happens to meet the enigmatic Finn, who lives alone in a shack on the shore near the school. For reasons he doesn't fully understand (mostly because he's never felt this way before), the story's protagonist is enamored of Finn, the way he lives, everything about him. Finn becomes everything he wishes himself to be but isn't. Jeopardizing his standing at the school (and perhaps being expelled from the last school to have him), he does all he can to spend time with Finn, even to the point of smothering Finn with his own needs. The novel ends with a surprising twist that will make you want to re-read the whole book just to see how it all comes together. This story is wonderful in it's own right. That Rosoff, being a woman from America, has created a completely convincing teenaged English boy character makes it just that much more so. A great book!
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Oozing with nostalgia...Feb. 3 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
I just read some reviews and will warn you that too many of them will spoil your experience if you read them before the book.
I'm a sucker for nostalgia and this book has it in spades. It's a beautifully written story set in 1960's England. I guess you could consider it a coming-of-age story, but that's a bit too simple.
It just exceeds 200 pages so it's great if you want something to just fill a weekend. The author has been considered a "Young Adults" author until this newest work, and critics are finally saying that her writing is worth a more consideration than that.
Anyway, I would highly recommend the book. Now, I can't wait to go back and read her previous novels.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Loved this book!Feb. 4 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
Anyone who has ever experienced a longing to escape their life, to escape society, to change their life into something free and wild, will find something wonderful in this book. Rosoff has captured that sense of longing so realiztically it felt like she had read my mind. When H discovers Finn living in an abandoned, sinking fishing village, he becomes obsessed. Maybe with the boy, maybe with his life, maybe with his freedom, his comfort in his own skin, in who he is, and his complete lack of need to become part of society. What does H decide to do when Finn shows very little interest in befriending him? He stalks him. He follows Finn everywhere, and eventually, like the cat that Finn lives with, Finn allows this boy into his life without ever giving any sign of needing or wanting him around. That's enough for H, who is so desperate to escape his life that just the fact that Finn doesn't send him away when he sneaks away from his boarding school to visit, that he is happy with that. Eventually Finn does develop a bit of a friendship with the boy, until by the end Finn is showing H how to crab, navigate a kayak, etc, al the while laughing at H's attempts which are not anything close to the natural skills Finn has. H adores Finn. Finn is everything H is not. H is impressed by Finn's abilities, knowledge, freedom, and is also very taken with Finn's beauty, even as we wonder what this says about H - is H falling in love with this boy? I read this book quickly as I could not put it down. I was saddened by the fact that after reading the ending I know I cannot read it again with the same wonderment I read it with the first time. Not because the ending is awful, but only because the ending changes everything you have just read and you can't go back to that wonderful fantasy. But this book moved me and maybe someday when I have forgotten the ending (as if that would happen), I will again be able to enter H's world and empathize with his longing, his confusion, his adoration and desire to be not only with this boy but to BE this boy Finn. I am 44 years old. This is not only a book for young adults.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Angieville: WHAT I WASOct. 31 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
I've been holding on to this one because you have to be ready to sink into a Meg Rosoff book. None of this wishy-washy, "Oh, that might be nice to pick up tonight." You've got to be all in. Ready to let her work her magic. Interestingly, WHAT I WAS was first released in Britain as a YA title, then later in the U.S. by Viking Adult. Not sure why the switch but, as is the case with both her previous novels, I think What I Was will appeal equally to adults and young adults. I, naturally, couldn't put it down.
The narrator of this brief, haunting tale remains nameless for the majority of the book. All we know is the year is 1962, the place is England, and the main character is a young man who, having been expelled from two previous boarding schools, is being rather unceremoniously dropped off on the doorstep of his third. Unremarkable in almost every way, the only striking thing about him appears to be his supreme disdain for, well, most everything, a sort of monumental apathy he seems to have absorbed over sixteen years of uninspiring schools, uncaring teachers, and uninvolved parents.
The entire story is told by our narrator as he looks back on his life from the self-declared "impossible age" of 100. This device lends the boy of 16's narrative a certain degree of clarity and wisdom it would otherwise have lacked being told in the present tense. For instance the scene where his father drops him off:
"It's time you sorted yourself out," he said. "You're nearly a man." But a less true description could scarcely have been uttered. I was barely managing to get by as a boy."
Lines like these combine the hindsight of the adult with the aching uncertainty that is adolescence, the knowledge that one is going about the whole thing "wrong," without an inkling of what "right" should or would look like. So much of this novel is taken up by the notion of how we perceive things (particularly in our youth) and how those perceptions can be so real, they utterly subsume reality as it may be or as others may see it. And how those perceptions change us, marking our lives permanently. I don't want to go into any more detail than this, but suffice it to say our young man meets someone who changes his life, in both healthy and unhealthy ways, I would say. And, though neither of their lives end up as they thought they would, the change is what matters. As he puts it:
"It was love, of course, though I didn't know it then [...] At last I extinguished the lamp, though according to my watch it was still early. And then, divided from the night by nothing more than four flimsy walls and an idea of a friend, I fell asleep."
It's a quiet, beautiful, strange book and I loved it.