Novel Explores What Might Be — for Young Adults and Old
A Contrary review by Linda Smith

Categorized as young-adult fiction, Meg Rosoff’s novel What I Was exhibits the kind of sardonic wit and emotional intensity that can interest readers of any age; young adults can relate and older readers can reminisce, be it fondly, or as with Rosoff’s main character, sometimes not so fondly.
An epigraph preceding the story tells that an old man is reflecting upon adolescence, to the time when he “discovered love.” Readers first meet this old man, known only as H, as a boy arriving at St. Oswald’s, a school in a line of boarding schools from which H has been expelled. H is not a bad child, just one without direction, without passion, a typical teenage boy disgruntled by the confines of institutionalized education. Though H is only 16, he exhibits a mature and astute sense of cynicism, internally commenting upon his new school:

“All I could see was a depressed institution of secondary education suitably shrouded in fog. But I said nothing, having learned a thing or two in sixteen years of carefully judged mediocrity, including the value of silence.”

While H’s internal monologue is rife with sarcasm and claims of mediocrity, this humorous commentary allows H to avoid complete hopelessness and degeneration. In moments such as this Rosoff’s epigraph seems superfluous, as the prose effectively portrays a sense of retrospection.
Within the spiritually deadening confines of St. Oswald’s, where the boys were “desperately, terminally, catastrophically starved of real life,” H searches for a way to merely get by. After a particularly harrowing gym class, H stumbles upon a small cottage. Enter Finn. To H, Finn is the most mysterious and captivating boy; he has no parents, he does not attend school, and lives in what seems be a state of pure bliss. Finn’s free and independent life is antithetical to H’s stifled boarding school existence, in which students remain under the constant supervision of haughty academics and insincere parents. H desires to be with Finn constantly, as if by proximity he will gain this life of freedom and anonymity. Finn inspires H to fully experience life instead of just getting by.
H’s cynical explanations engender St. Oswald’s with a life of its own, rendering it as though it were a character itself, one of the awful boys or hideous teachers. It operates according to an unspoken decorum by which one must abide or fail miserably:

“Our world revolved around school rules, rules as mysterious and arcane as the murkier corners of a papal cabal. Bottom button of blazer open or not, left hand in pocket or not, diagonal or straight crossing the courtyard, running or walking on the lawn…. Regulations merely existed, bobbing to the surface of school life like turds…. [We] obeyed because they were there, because we were newer or younger or weaker than the enforcers, because to fill our heads with more meaningful information might require the use of our critical facilities. Which would lead to doubts about the whole system. Which would lead to social and economic collapse and the end of life as we knew it.”

Rosoff sets her main character within this world of arbitrary regulations, a world that, as H astutely notes, would fall apart without these rules. It is from this world that H longs to escape, and it is from Rosoff’s clever narration of this world that readers experience her gift for giving life to a scene.
Using a universal tale of love and maturation, Rosoff keeps readers interested, varying the conventional coming-of-age story by subtly making gender irrelevant. The relationship between H and Finn borders on sexual but explores much deeper adolescent issues of attachment, lust, rejection, and love. H experiences how “strange” it is to “live inside another person’s life, to wonder all the time what he’s doing, or thinking, or feeling.” Like H, the reader only learns about Finn through the pithy and intermittent details he reveals; Finn acts a puzzle that both H and readers desire to solve. As the novel ends with an unexpected twist, H looks back on his life and relationship with Finn, finally able to see things as they really were. This is a tale of growth, the kind only realized through retrospection, through experiencing something intensely and making sense of it many years later, or in H’s case, almost one hundred years later. This framework is what instills relevancy to readers who are experiencing these immediate intensities, and to those with the ability and distance to make sense of what they once were and what they are now.

Linda Smith teaches writing in the College at the University of Chicago.

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What I Was
by Meg Rosoff
2008, Viking
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

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