There aren’t many books that I wish I’d come across earlier in my life. Every so often there’s a book that arrives at just the right time (A Jest of God for instance), but more often then not what I read offers something in the present, and then – if it’s any good – becomes a narrative I circle back to when necessary or prompted. But I do wish I’d had Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now between the ages of 16-21 (which maybe makes the title into something of an oxymoron – to have wanted it *earlier*, but there you go). I wish I’d had it then because it perfectly captures the terror of having to find a way to adapt and to live in novel, unpredictable and entirely beyond-your-control situations and environments (re: being a teenager, or rather, being a person).
Our protagonist, Daisy, is remarkable for what she doesn’t find remarkable about herself. She’s anorexic, in love with her cousin (and he with her), having sex at 14, sent away from her home in New York for being ‘difficult,’ yet none of these ‘things’ about her are presented in the narrative as in any way exceptional, or understood by her as exceptional. Rather, the introduction of successive plot moments and character traits – a war! an eating disorder! incest! – that in another text might dominate the narrative, are here simply further instances of how Daisy – how we all – must find ways to live in the unexpected, unchosen and unforseen.
Though I’m very glad to have read the book now I wish I’d be able to read the book when I was a teenager because Daisy doesn’t always triumph, or manage to “live well” in these uncontrollable circumstances. She makes mistakes, she’s scared, she’s selfish. But she also doesn’t make apologies for these less-than-heroic reactions, instead she makes subtle changes, trying always, it seems, to find ways to live as well as she can – even if that isn’t an accepted or ideal way: an admirable model for any teenage girl (or 20-something woman…).
I found the tone of the novel initially disconcerting (in the same way as Going Bovine, come to think of it, so maybe I’m just not hip anymore?). Rosoff uses Random Capitalization and odd. punctuation. in order to capture the rhythm and tone of her protagonist, but for whatever reason (poor editing?) these affectations are all but dropped in the latter half of the novel as the plot picks up. A generous read might draw a relationship between Daisy’s developing sense of individuality and personal strength and the emergence of a traditional (and hence more confident – I think anyway – tone), but given the spotted lapse back into Serious Thought Are Capitalized I suspect instead that the affected tone got in the way of the more compelling plot moments. I’m open to disagreements on this one (if only because I liked the book so much that I’d be happy to find a way to redeem this otherwise bothersome aspect).
So should you be a young adult yourself, or should you know one that is finding it all too much, let me urge a read of How I Live Now. There’s some kind of inimitable comfort in reading a novel that reminds you that no matter how unpredictable, unconventional or uncontrollable your life feels (and is), it’s livable, when living means fucking it up, imperfection, risk, and knowing what you’re doing doesn’t make any sense (at all), but doing it anyway.