Meg Rosoff’s “What I Was”

January 19, 2008 at 5:14 am (Galleys, Young Adult Fiction)

On the back of the galley for Meg Rosoff’s “What I Was” is this line: “Advance Reading Copy for media, booksellers and bloggers” – the first time I have seen bloggers mentioned in the media disclaimer on an ARC. So, because Random House invited it, here are my thoughts:

After reading “How I Live Now” and “Just in Case”, I became fully conscious of the fact that Meg Rosoff is one of the most original voices in contemporary YA literature, topped only by the inestimable Markus Zusak. She has a wonderful skill at writing sentences that alternate seamlessly between lyric flow and knife-sharp edges. Her ideas are fascinating and she expresses them with wit and intelligence, having faith that her readers (though young) are neither unaware nor uninterested, and will explore such varying themes as sexuality, identity, war, and destiny, along with her.

That being said, in almost every respect other than her gorgeous writing style (which is as finely tuned and haunting as ever), “What I Was” failed to captivate me and, I thought, didn’t approach the brilliance of her previous two novels. For one thing, I found myself unable to connect with any of the characters, who I thought for the most part were difficult to know well. The un-named narrator is cold, and without the “swift, incisive” opinions he insists he has. Finn… well Finn is surprising. I won’t lie and say I saw that development coming (I didn’t, at all), but I did find it rather weird. The pitiable Reese is probably the most clearly developed character, completely memorable for his social weakness and lingering presence, and his mouth “opening and closing like a fish”.

I also did not love the name of the book, which I found rather dull and not very exciting. I just didn’t think we were any closer at the end of the book to understanding “what” the narrator “was”. For all that they are not really a part of the story (and many may think I am making too much of a small matter here), interesting titles are crucial. Aside from the marketing power of a gripping title, those are the first few words in which you have the chance to say something about the tale that is coming. There’s an immense satisfaction in reading a book through to the end, and realizing that the title is perfectly suited to what you have just read. Somewhere near the middle of this book, the narrator catches a glimpse of Finn and, in his head, calls him “my boy king”. Now wouldn’t that have been some title?

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