Monday, 28 October 2013

How I Live Now

How I Live Now
Meg Rosoff
London, Penguin, 2004, 211p

Somehow, miraculously, I managed to avoid seeing the trailer for the adaptation for this novel before I read the book. But as such, I had no idea what I was about to read - whatever I had expected, this was not it.

Daisy is shipped by her father from New York to rural England in the hope that it will help her get better. She is an angry, lonely teenager suffering from anorexia. For the first few months, she finally starts to feel like she can be at peace here with her cousins; until war breaks out and the teenagers are separated, left to fight for survival in a world gone mad. 

I thought How I Live Now was going to be a teen romance - the blurb on my version is very ambiguous, with no mention of devastating war. Whilst in England, Daisy falls for her mysterious cousin, Edmond. She admits it might be incestuous, but when war breaks out, you forget all about the romance plot as the characters are suddenly thrust into your worst nightmare.

The cause of the war is never fully clear - it is the perfect dystopia. As such, you are not preoccupied with the 'why' but focused upon the 'what'. The war is unpredictable and unexplained - no one ever seems sure of what is happening. For most of the novel, Daisy and Piper, separated from the boys, are left to fend for themselves, traipsing across the English countryside. It is picturesque and terrifying in equal measure - even if you do not live in England, you have some idea of what the countryside would be like, and here Rosoff transforms it into a vast, empty space with no refuge. 

Food is a significant trope throughout the novel. At first, Daisy is distracted by her need to control what she eats, venting her frustration through her eating disorder. But when faced with the possibility of being unable to find food, the war forces her to eat all she can. Whole chapters of the novel are dedicated to Daisy describing the food she finds and cooks, whilst she craves toast and butter. This is very effective - food is something we can all relate to, and by focusing Daisy's suffering on such a universal concept, the war becomes real.
Even under the protection of adults, Daisy and her cousins are never safe. Throughout the novel, there is a massive disconnect between adults and children, but not in a Lord of the Flies sort of way. Instead, adults in How I Live now are completely null and void. These teenagers seem to survive better without adult supervision. Adults cannot provide answers or safety - if anything, they are the cause of all that is bad, being responsible for the war, for death and for the teenagers' separation and loss. Refreshingly, Rosoff does not patronise her protagonists - adults are not brought in to save the day - but instead shows the teenagers as the real heroes, with their love for each other overcoming all. In this way, this novel is a rare gem in which young people are truly of the greatest value.

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