What I Was by Meg Rosoff

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Paperback, 224 pages

Published: December 30, 2008 by Plume (1st published August 30, 2007)

Setting: England

Literary Awards: Goldener Lufti (2010), Carnegie Medal in Literature Shortlist (2008)

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As a very old man, Hilary finds that his mind drifts freely throughout his life, without an anchor. He he reflects on the year he was sixteen, when he first experienced love.

In 1960s England, he was in a boarding school, an institution he saw as the last bastion of the crumbling British Empire. Having been kicked out of several boarding schools, H. was wise to the system, and his expectations were low. Meg Rosoff created a unique voice; H. is bright, edgy, and incredibly witty. He also has few delusions about himself; he doesn’t fancy himself as any sort of hero.

St. Oswald’s School lies on the crumbling coast of St. Anglia, and the setting is a full-fledged character in the story. The boys at St. Oswald’s, who are generally indifferent students, enjoy medieval history because of the nasty descriptions of bloodshed, mutilation, and torture. So H. is aware of myriad layers of history in this little coastal area, right down to the crumbling Roman forts. The descriptions of the tides, the coast, and the surrounding area are vibrant. I could see, smell, hear, feel, and even taste it and, at the same time, the description of the setting has a dreamlike quality.

When H. meets a solitary, mysterious boy named Finn, living alone in a fishing hut, he is drawn to him, almost to the point of obsession, and he comes to love him. Finn is even more detached from the rest of the world than he is. H. longs to win his new friend’s approval and affection and to become part of the ebb and flow of his life.

This gorgeous novel captures the awkward intensity and longing of adolescence. The strong sense of yearning it evokes, the vivid, magical quality of the coastal setting, and the complicated relationship between H. and Finn–along with an unexpected twist–made this novel unforgettable for me.

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