Book Reviews 2015 · Contemporary Books · Magical Realism and Speculative Books · Young Adult Book Reviews

‘How I Live Now’ by Meg Rosoff

Fifteen-year-old Daisy is sent from Manhattan to England to visit her aunt and cousins she’s never met: three boys near her age, and their little sister. Her aunt goes away on business soon after Daisy arrives. The next day bombs go off as London is attacked and occupied by an unnamed enemy.
As power fails, and systems fail, the farm becomes more isolated. Despite the war, it’s a kind of Eden, with no adults in charge and no rules, a place where Daisy’s uncanny bond with her cousins grows into something rare and extraordinary.
But the war is everywhere, and Daisy and her cousins must lead each other into a world that is unknown in the scariest, most elemental way.

2 Stars

The first thing to say here is that while I only picked this up now as I found it in the back room of the charity shop where I work, I have been intending to ‘get around to it’ for a very long time, so I was quite excited to have an excuse to bump it up my TBR. It is also only 210 pages and I was busy, so it seemed like the perfect way to finish off my January: a short book I’ve been intending to pick up for a while now and I’d bought for 50p that very day (no shame about it lying on my TBR pile for ages). Instead of rounding off the month nicely, this book fell straight into my bottom three books I’ve read so far this year. I had so many issues with this book: the concept, the characters and the themes. I can’t help but spew out a list of everything I had a major issue with, so here goes. Brace yourselves.

I would’ve liked to know before reading that this book is written in a stream of consciousness narrative. This was incredibly annoying. I can deal with unusual narratives, but what really got on my nerves was the fact that when the main character relayed another person’s speech, it was not in quotation marks, but stuck straight in with her thought stream, signified only as another person’s dialogue by a capital letter on the first word of the speech. It wasn’t even a new sentence. This resulted in random capital letters strewn across the page on words where there technically shouldn’t be, which caused me to have a grammar-freak breakdown. Besides the fact that this narrative frustrated my inner neat freak, there is the fact that it made it nigh-on impossible to connect to any of the characters. As there is no sense of conversation with proper dialogue, the only time we hear of anyone but our protagonist Daisy is when she strings their sentences in amongst her own thoughts, which produces a rather childish narration along the lines of “I thought this…. but then he said…. and I thought that…” which grated on me. It didn’t sound polished or refined and above all it meant that I had no sense of who anyone else is, as we don’t hear them say their own lines, so they felt a bit like imaginary people in the protagonist’s head. The problem with a first person, dialogue-free narrative is that I felt completely detached from everyone but Daisy, and had no grasp on the personalities of any of the other characters, and so the only emotion I felt for them was pity that they had to associate with her!

This book is often classified as sci-fi from what I’ve seen, however you may notice that I have categorised it in both ‘contemporary’ and ‘magical realism and speculative’ rather than sci-fi. This is as I cannot understand which elements of this book are science fiction. It is set in a modern-to-futuristic time period (we never find out the details) but there is nothing technologically advanced about it. In fact, it felt more historical, as I spent a good few chapters under the impression that the war it refers to was World War II, as the way in which England is described makes me think old-fashioned and 70-odd-years in the past, a la WWII evacuation to the country. There is nothing futuristic or science-fiction about this at all. Contemporary, yes, as it is a war in a modern setting, and ‘magical realism and speculative’ as there are some elements of this (which I will describe later) which are most definitely not normal, and above all it is a bit of a speculation about a modern war, but this book is NOT sci-fi by my definition.

Meg Rosoff is an American who moved to the UK over a decade before this was published, which is the same journey that the protagonist makes. However, my first thoughts as Daisy was describing England is “has the author ever been to England?” as I was convinced from the descriptions that she hadn’t. Yes, they did ring true of an English countryside town… 75 years ago. None of it felt like the countryside today, and it was probably for this reason that I was convinced for a bit that ‘the war’ which had started was WWII, and that this was a historical novel. Everything seemed like a very stereotypical view of the UK countryside: everyone being farmers with a trillion livestock animals and farmer’s markets all the time and quaint little villages with nothing around for miles and miles and all the houses being converted barns… My friend and I did have a little bit of a laugh at it, as it sounded exactly like how an American perceived the English countryside to be, and felt very fake to both of us.

Focusing on the protagonist, I have to say that Daisy is quite possibly the worst influence I have ever seen in a main female protagonist for a book intended to be read by teenagers. There was the fact that she was a typically bitchy and rude person with no care for anyone but herself.

“No matter how much you put on a sad expression and talked about how awful it was that all those people were killed and what about democracy and the Future of Our Great Nation the fact that none of us kids said out loud was that WE DIDN’T REALLY CARE. Most of the people who got killed were either old like our parents so they’d had good lives already, or people who worked in banks and were pretty boring anyway, or other people we didn’t know.”

The above section of text is quite possibly the most blasé and downright disgusting way I have ever heard a character talk about a sensitive topic. She is talking about people who died when a bomb exploded in an underground station, although she couldn’t tell you how many had died, that it was “between seven and seventy thousand” but that she “didn’t really care”. Nasty bit of work. And that’s before we get to the real icing on the cake: her eating disorder. I am a sucker for a story that tells honestly about a person’s suffering with health issues, but this took the piss. She describes her eating disorder as follows:

“I really tried to explain about at first not wanting to get poisoned by my stepmother and how much it annoyed her and how after a while I discovered I liked the feeling of being hungry and the fact that it drove everyone stark raving mad and cost my father a fortune in shrinks and also it was something I was good at.”

So, she points the finger of blame at her stepmother for TRYING TO POISON HER. She describes her stepmother as ‘Davina the Diabolical’, but never, ever says anything that the woman has done wrong to her except marry her father. Considering that her mother died fifteen years previously giving birth to her, and it’s not like there was a messy break-up for Daisy to be upset about, she really needs to grow up. We hear nothing about her stepmother doing anything wrong, but we hear a constant stream of how Daisy wishes her ill health (the woman is heavily pregnant as well, making it even worse) and now the girl accuses her of giving her an eating disorder. Even more infuriating, she ENJOYED THE MADNESS IT GAVE THEM? That’s purely psychotic. And the fact that she revels in the amount of money her father is spending on helping her disgusts me. Of course, some people do drive themselves to anorexia as a cry for help, but this paragraph sounds so inhumane when you think about the fact that she is not only aware that she is hurting her family but revels in the fact. It can even be seen as glorification of the topic, as she talks about it as if it were an admirable thing to do and how she did it to save herself from the wicked stepmother. There was never a conclusion where she realised how bad her anorexia was or acknowledged that she may need treatment, leaving it to seem like a badge of glory to readers.

I’m not saying that I wouldn’t buy into incestuous first-cousin relationships… if they were done correctly. My premises for cousin incest being acceptable are firstly that it is legal in the country where it is taking place (which this is), that they did not grow up knowing that they were cousins and being part of the same family gatherings etc (these two didn’t meet before the book) and that the relationship is based upon genuine feelings…. which is where this all went wrong. As I’ve mentioned, while incest between two close cousins who grew up knowing each other as relatives is a no-no for me, I’m not one to completely disregard the idea, so I didn’t have a huge problem with the idea when I read that it cropped up. I did however have major issues with Daisy and her cousin Edmond’s relationship from within four pages of it starting however. This is mainly as there was no chemistry or love between them (despite her proclamation that she loved him), just an overwhelming desire to have sex and snog a bit. This leads into a whole other issue of its own: the glorification of underage sex. While there are no specific sex scenes, you hear countless times about how they slept together and references to ‘climbing inside each other’ and ‘the bed being empty without him’ etc. Daisy is fifteen. Edmond is fourteen. They are not the legal age in the UK, where they are living (the legal age being 16). They are not the legal age in America, where she is a citizen (that age being between 16 and 18 dependant on state). I’m not under the impression that everyone waits until they are legal before having sex, but this book (which is advertised as 12+) basically sings the praises of having sex. It views it as their salvation from the war. These kids are underage whichever way you look at it, and the likelihood is that so are a decent chunk of the readers, yet the book advertises a 15-year-old and a 14-year-old having sex as if it is a great thing to do, and I can’t condone that. What made this worse was when she talked to her friend back in America, who made reference to a guy from school who ‘rejects a notorious virginal girl who doesn’t want to have sex three times a day, and so he dumps her and masturbates as a replacement’. Not only does it strike me that the blasé nature she talks about sex in suggests that she is so familiar with it that it makes me rather uncomfortable, but it also insinuates that underage sex is a perfectly acceptable thing. If a 12-or-13-year-old were to read this, I think that gives a pretty foul message that you are expected to have sex under the age of consent, otherwise you won’t be ‘cool’. Unfortunately, I am aware that in many high-school situations that would be true, but we should be rising above the alarming trivialisation of underage sex, not telling underage people that they have to do it early to be seen as worthwhile. The stance this book takes on the topic unnerves me.

As well as glorifying both underage incestuous sex and eating disorders, there was one (admittedly irrelevant) scene which stood out to me as purely disgusting. A particularly slow boy named Joe, who clearly had some kind of learning disorder, showed signs that he might have fancied Daisy. He never did anything wrong, like press upon her that he liked her or did anything appropriate, he purely talked to her a bit as if making polite conversation. Daisy is talking to an older woman at this point, and the pair refuse to go anywhere near the boy, and Daisy distinctly says the line “some people don’t deserve to have friends”, before the older woman laughs and the pair move on, never to mention it again. This line stuck in my head as outrageous; it essentially takes the mickey out of someone who was a little bit slow, and belittles his right to having friends, as he isn’t someone she would consider dating. He never did anything wrong to her, and I think that the message from that incredibly unnecessary comment rubs salt in the wounds of a topic which is rather tentative at the best of times. And if we’re continuing down the line of bad influences, I’m just going to say that Edmond (aged 14) smokes and drives a Jeep to the airport and back… because Rosoff clearly likes stuffing in illegal premises here…

This book is set in a war… That is all the information you get regarding the goings-on. Everything is referred to as ‘The War’ and ‘The Enemy’ and ‘The Good Guys’ and ‘The Operation’, and that is all the information you get as to what is actually going on. I was left feeling very let-down that we never found out anything about this war, and felt rather angry about the poor excuse of a war story this actually was. Of course, all of this is the case as our first-person narrator Daisy doesn’t give a crap about the war going on around her, but I would have appreciated it a lot if at the end (what with her being 21 and lived through the war) she had described what had actually happened. It would have satisfied me whilst showing that she had progressed from the pathetic teenage cow (she never did move on from that stage by the way).

There is one element which struck me as odd: the twins Edmond and Isaac seem to possess some not-quite-human powers. Isaac talks little to humans and turns out to be some kind of animal whisperer, whilst Edmond appears to read people’s minds. We know nothing more than this as Daisy just accepts it and acts like it is perfectly normal, but I was left with a billion and one questions about these ‘powers’, none of which were answered. Where did they come from? Why do they have them? Is it normal? No idea.

There are two parts to this book, one 175-odd page section set during the war, and a brief 35-ish page section set 6 years after. In this later section, I just got incredibly confused. It jumped from the first part to the second with no explanation of anything that had happened, and it felt rushed, with nothing tied up at the end. By this point, I cared very little anyway, but if I had endorsed in the rest of the book and it fobbed me off with that ending, I would have been furious!

After writing this, I’ve been left wondering if 2 stars is too generous, but as I’ve already decreased it from 2.25, I didn’t struggle to finish it and I have read worse books, I’m sticking with 2 stars. But I would say: don’t be fooled by the award symbols on the front cover of this (especially if you’re at the younger end of ‘teen’). For a book targeted at 12/13 and up, I think this is an incredibly inappropriate, poorly thought out glorification of so many things which I wouldn’t have wanted to be exposed to aged 13 (in fact I read up from my age bracket, so I may well have picked this up at 10/11, and I shudder to think…). And even if you are older, it would probably be a waste of an afternoon to invest in this. I got no satisfaction from it, just pure rage.

Twitter @emmathereader

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17 thoughts on “‘How I Live Now’ by Meg Rosoff

  1. Well this is unfortunate. I watched thr movie not too long ago, with Saiorse Ronan and quite liked it. But having read your (very good) review, I highly doubt whether I’ll ever read the book. Sometimes the movies really are better than the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m yet to see the film so I don’t know how it weighs up, but I think one aspect of the film I can cope better with is the fact that the actors are older than the book characters are, so I assume everything seems slightly… aged up. One of the things that strikes me is that it seems very inappropriate given the characters are 14, so I wondered how their ages translate in the film?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, that’s true. I can’t remember if she says how old she is in the movie, but she comes off as being around 16 and Edmund seems to be either that or maybe a bit older. Definitely didn’t think they were as young as they are portrayed in the book

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      2. If they are both legal, it eliminates the ‘trivialisation of underage sex’ issue I suppose. If you liked the film, it’s worth considering reading it, especially given that it somehow has a handful of prestigious awards. However bear in mind if you ever do that the film probably had better scope for characterisation than the book’s first person non-dialogue narrative. I’d also bet Daisy isn’t such a nasty piece of work in the film! It may be your thing, however it sure as hell wasn’t mine! 🙂

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  2. Two things: 1) This is classified as SCI-FI?! And 2) I must have seriously spaced out while forcing myself to read this because I remember almost nothing of what you talked about here. I do agree with you on everything you said, though. Thinking back on it, Daisy was actually unappealing and I think what I mistook as spunk was just bitchiness. Excellent review. But a pity that a book that’s been praised so much really didn’t turn out to be that good, at least for us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 1) Apparently so, that’s how I’ve seen it classified.
      2) It’s probably best that you don’t remember to be honest, I kind of wish I hadn’t read it!
      I can’t really understand the praise, but at least I’m not the only one who sees its faults 🙂

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      1. Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t really like it. Now I guess I’ll refrain from rereading it. I remember when I started it I thought, “Oh, wow, this is going to be such a quick read!” -_- Not all short(er) books are easy to get through…

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