Toward the end of his life, H looks back on the relationship that has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century. It began many years earlier at St. Oswald’s, a dismal boarding school on the coast of England, where the young H came face- to-face with an almost unbearably beautiful boy living by himself at the edge of the sea.
At first, the mysterious Finn appears to have no past his home is an ancient fisherman’s hut with a woodstove, a case of books, striped blankets, and a cat.
H insinuates his way into Finn’s life, stalking him with perfect patience until an unlikely friendship is kindled; a confused idyll of devotion and longing set against a background of blazing wood fires and fishing expeditions.
Their friendship deepens, offering H both the freedom and the human connection that has always eluded him. But in a world of conformity, can one eccentric idyll be allowed to survive?
This book was… really frustrating. I was totally expecting to like this book. I liked the jacket description and I loved How I Live Now when I read it a few years back. It was one of those books that really stopped me in my tracks and made me think. It was great writing, so I had high expectations for my second Meg Rosoff book. And it just didn’t live up to them.
What I Was is narrated by a nameless man, looking back and reflecting on a short period of time when he went to boarding school by the sea. While there he meets a boy named Finn who lives by himself in a cabin by the ocean and the two become friends… kinda. The lead up to the story suggests that the events that are about to take place are life changing for the narrator in some way.
There are a few things that really bothered me about this story, but I wouldn’t say that it’s badly written. It’s descriptive and does a good job setting a certain tone. I felt like I could hear the ocean and feel the sand and I could imagine just how Finn’s little cabin looked. But consistency and plot issues got to me. And I just could not like the main character.
At the beginning of the book we learn that H (his first initial, as we learn later on) was kicked out of two schools previous to coming to St. Oswald’s. He explains that this was not due to any deplorable behaviour, but simply because he was less than extraordinary. But just a few pages later he explains that getting expelled from his second school involved the help of “materials readily available from any school chemistry lab.” It’s little things like this that threw me off. Is it intentional? Is this such a personal narrative that the reflections are colored by the main characters opinions from when he was a teenager? It’s hard to tell.
Even more confusing are H’s feelings towards Finn. They meet early in the book and H immediately feels drawn to the other boy. Like really. In an “I constantly think of you and want to hang out with you all the time and I might be stalking you” kind of way. But after their first meeting H clarifies that he didn’t fantasize about him “in that way”. He just wants to BE Finn. Right.
I might believe that statement if their relationship was explained differently, but every thought and action on H’s part shouts “HOMOEROTIC TENSION!” He does want to be Finn because H Himself is awkward and ungainly and ordinary. But there is also attraction there, though it’s not necessarily mutual. H pretty much invades Finn’s life in an attempt to escape his bleak boarding school existence. Though he has an awareness of how desperate his actions are, that doesn’t stop him from looking down on a fellow student who seems to idolize him with the same dog-like devotion H shows Finn.
While H isn’t the most likable character I did find myself drawn into the story due to Finn. But that was completely ruined by the plot twist at the end of the book. I don’t want to give it away, but I will say that I didn’t see it coming until right before it happened. And I didn’t like it.
In How I Live Now Rosoff managed to throw a twist into the story that completely worked. It was unexpected but it brought the story to a whole new level and I loved it. Here it just felt like everything the book had been building up to was suddenly thrown aside. The little bit of investment I had in what happened to the characters instantly vanished. It didn’t help that the book ended shortly after the big revelation.
I’m not giving up on Rosoff. I still really like her writing style and I’ll probably check out her other books at some point, but this one just didn’t work for me.