Ah, methinks the Christmas reading funk has come to an end. Which is good, because it seems that Christmas has now passed. In keeping with my (new) tradition, I finished a great (if emotionally wrenching) book on Christmas day itself. That book is How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. And, I'll tell you, it was so good that I didn't even notice that it had nary a quotation mark until at least halfway through.
How I Live Now begins with the 15-year-old and obviously troubled Daisy arriving in England to spend the summer with her aunt and four cousins that she barely knows. Leaving life in New York where the weight of people's pity that her mother died in childbirth combined with life with her "evil" and now pregnant step-mother is a relief for Daisy whose desperation to be loved mixes all up with using self-starvation as a weapon against parents who don't seem to understand. Daisy finds solace at her Aunt Penn's isolated farmhouse where her odd but affectionate cousins wrap her up in their idyllic world where school consists of reading books and communication is totally possible even outside the limitation of speech.
I made up my mind to ask Aunt Penn some of these questions when she came back from Oslo but I guess what you really want to know are the things you can't ask like Did she have eyes like yours and When you pushed my hair back was that what it feels like to have your mother do it and Did she ever have a chance to look at me with a complicated expression like the one on your face, and by the way Was she scared to die.
As the summer wears on, Daisy is sure that she's found a place she can belong in the Back of Beyond with her cousins, Osbert, the eldest, who feels some responsibility for the rest but can't be troubled to do much about it; Piper, the youngest, who eagerly sweeps Daisy into their lives with her disarming sweetness; and twins Isaac and Edmond, the former who seems to be able to talk to animals but is strikingly wordless among people and the latter who Daisy feels a bit more for than is generally acceptable in a cousinly relationship. Even as Daisy begins to live her truest life, it is crumbling around her as a war sneaks into the countryside, upending all of their lives forever.
...sometimes I forgot to count Isaac because he could go days without saying a single word. I knew Aunt Penn wasn't worried about him because I heard her say to someone that he'd speak when he was ready to speak, but all I could think was in New York that kid would have been stuck in a straitjacket practically from birth and dangled over a tank full of Education Consultants and Remedial Experts all snapping at his ankles for the next twenty years arguing about his Special Needs and getting paid plenty for it.
How I Live Now is beyond description. The summary covers only the barest bones of a story that is surprisingly unique and oddly magical. Daisy is a brilliant teen narrator, obviously damaged and cynical when it comes to her life thus far and also desperately vulnerable and in need of love in a way few around her seem to understand. Her narration races along in stream of consciousness style with capital letters used frequently for emphasis in a way that is decidedly teenage. It crackles with insight and captures her cousins from an outsider's inside point of view, picking up on their sort of spiritual wavelength even when she is yet unable to be a part of it.
The beginning of the story paints her Aunt's run-down country farmhouse like a paradise and her cousins like Daisy's long lost soulmates, just as Daisy must see them. So, then, it is that much more jarring when a war begins in a decidedly non-traditional sense, slowly slashing paradise to pieces, separating the cousins, and subjecting them all to the harsh realities of an ultimately violent enemy Occupation. Even then, though, Daisy is finding herself and living a truer life than ever before as she discovers real love and learns that she would do anything to live for it.
I wanted to tell someone that this was it, the end, I couldn't go on any more with my own misery plus Piper's, which was so much worse. I felt full of rage and despair, like Job shaking his fist at God, and all I could do was sit with her and stroke her hair and murmur enough, enough, because that's what we'd both had.
Read it. It's awesome. It's definitely not the kind of book that you'll be quick to forget.
Read other reviews at:
Things Mean A Lot
In Search of Giants
Ink and Paper
Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops