________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 19 . . . . May 16, 2008


What I Was.

Meg Rosoff.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2007.
209 pp., hardcover, $21.00.
ISBN 978-0-385-66397-7.

Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Pam Klassen-Dueck.

**** /4


I can be there again now, huddled in a private pocket of warmth as the fire dies and the hut cools, snug against the roar of wind and sea, wrapped in blankets permeated with Finn's smoky wood smell, and always aware of the other presence in the loft above me, mysterious and powerful as an angel. After all these years, I can barely think back to that night without succumbing to emotions both wonderful and terrible, to a feeling as deep as the sea and as wide as the night sky. It was love, of course, though I didn't know it then, and Finn was both its subject and object. He accepted love instinctively, without responsibility or conditions, like a wild thing glimpsed through trees.


It is 1960s England, and a teenaged boy has just been unceremoniously deposited by his father at a remote East Anglian boarding school. He finds St. Oswald's – with its overcooked food, lecherous teachers, and nasty peers – draining and unforgiving, until he meets Finn, a beautiful boy living in a hut by the sea. Overtaken with love for Finn and his solitary way of life, he risks everything to become a part of it. Yet nothing in Finn's life is what it seems, and devastation rains down unexpectedly on both boys.

     What I Was, written by the award-winning Meg Rosoff, is a dark and dreamy coming-of-age tale of passion and loss. The 16-year-old protagonist, Hilary, is in despair about his self-identity: how is he to become the man that his father expects of him when he is barely coping as a boy? Having been expelled from two previous schools, St. Oswald's represents the boy's third attempt to become his own person in a world that makes no sense. Then, he meets Finn, a dark, slight, and (at first glance) unschooled creature.

     The prep-school boy's developing relationship with the self-sufficient Finn is hazy and intense. The two share an unusual bond as the protagonist worships Finn, who accepts these feelings, although he allows nothing to pierce his mystery. Hilary despairs at how to make Finn love him, as he desires nothing more than to be him. Although Finn remains distant and quiet, Hilary becomes aware of the value and richness of the silence between them. He begins to grow into himself, although this evolution is also ambiguous because he can't stop his desire to live as Finn.

     Informing the relationship between Hilary and his beloved is the novel's commentary about history as something that people take with them wherever they go. Hilary's understanding of history, at first, is limited to the tales of blood and gore that he has heard in school, and he imagines Finn as a romantic figure from the Dark Ages. In contrast, Finn attempts to show the boy that history contains varied and conflicting stories about people and their lives. This is a fascinating commentary to read in a young adult novel, in comparison to the myth perpetuated by so many schools that history is a fixed entity about kings and wars.

     With its surprising themes and rich characterization, What I Was is a book to be savoured by a crossover audience of adolescents and adults.

Highly Recommended.

Pam Klassen-Dueck is a graduate student in the M.Ed. program at Brock University in St. Catharines, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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