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What I Was: A Novel

by

What I Was: A Novel Cover

 

 

Excerpt

The sound of Finn boiling water woke me at dawn. He wasn't much for talking, especially at that hour, and wouldn't answer any conversation I initiated. Like the hut, he warmed up slowly, and I had a feeling his habit of solitude had existed for so long that it surprised him every morning to find me asleep where his granny had once lain.

It occurred to me that I had been at boarding school for a good many more years than Finn had lived alone, so perhaps my social skills were a little on the odd side as well. Whenever I was at home, I watched my mother chat brightly over breakfast the way an anthropologist might note typical social behaviour of the human species.

I hated getting up in the cold, and slept buried up to my eyes in blankets, removing them only to wrap my hands around a warm cup of tea. Finn had added sugar to mine unprompted and I turned away to hide my flush of pleasure. I knew that if I waited in bed for him to build up the fire and perform his morning tasks, the hut would gradually fill with a kind of fuggy warmth, so I lay still, savouring the familiar sounds and postponing reentry into full consciousness for as long as possible.

Nothing in my life so far compared with those first minutes of the day, half sitting in bed, still swaddled in warmth and with no imperative to move, just staring out of the window as the first pale streaks ignited the sky. I watched boats chug slowly past the windows: fishing boats returning from a long night of work, sailing boats from the nearby estuary taking advantage of the favourable tide, little tugs on their way back to port. At night passenger ships twinkled on the horizon like stars, but the daylight made them invisible.

"We'll take the dinghy," Finn said over his shoulder, heading out of the door. Through the window I watched him go, watched his outline soften and blur as he disappeared into the morning haze. The world had not yet come into focus. Even the sound of the sea seemed muffled, as if heard from a long distance away. From where I sat it was invisible, too, lost in a cloak of grey mist. I knew this moment of half-light wouldn't last, that in less than an hour daylight would have burned off the fog and restored the shape of things.

In the Dark Ages, most of life took place out of doors: the planting, herding, cooking, the buying and selling, the weddings, births, deaths, wars. In Finn's version of life in the twentieth century, not much had changed. Despite the cold, we walked and fished, lay on the beach and stared at the sunlit clouds or the stars in the night sky, pulled in the traps, messed about in boats. We walked to market with his fish or his bag of crabs and, like the Angles and Saxons, exchanged these commodities for things we didn't have—a hammer, a loaf of bread, a pair of woollen socks.

After only ten days at the hut I could appreciate the advantages of such a world, a world with nothing extra or unnecessary in it. A cooking pot, a place to sleep, a friend, a fire—what more did I require?

I loved the simple richness of our domestic life, the overlapping rhythms, the glancing contacts, the casual-seeming but carefully choreographed dance played out through the rooms of a shared house. I even learned to accept Finn's silence for what it was and not read it as a reproach. It was a lesson that has proved valuable in later life, this acceptance of another person's silence, for I am more the silence-filler sort of person, hopeless on bird-watching expeditions. Despite the effort required to adapt, I became accustomed to whole days or parts of days during which we barely spoke, just drifted side by side in what for me was a dreamy silence, filled with unspoken words that slipped out of my brain and floated up to dissipate in the cold blue sky.

I began to pick up some of Finn's jobs, shovelling sand into the latrine, fetching water from the open tank at the far end of the huts. Neither of us commented on my expanded role, but I could read expressions on Finn's face that I might not have noticed before, slight shifts of the eyes or movements of the corners of the mouth. Pleasure. Displeasure. Impatience. And very occasionally: interest. Amusement. Sometimes I believed I could chart the passage of thoughts across his face, though the content of those thoughts remained a mystery to me, as if written in another language. For the rest of my break we lived together in a boyish ideal (my boyish ideal) of perfect happiness. I became used to the feel and the taste of my own salty skin. My face turned brown from exposure all day to the April sun, and for once in my life my hair felt thick, textured with salt. There was no mirror in Finn's hut, so I could look at him and imagine myself each day growing taller and slimmer and bolder. It was a lie in ways I already suspected, and ways I hadn't yet imagined. But it made me happy, and even then I knew that happiness was something in which to plunge headlong, and damn the torpedoes. Our time together would have to end, I knew that, and knew also that the pain of leaving this place would be intolerable, like death. In all the years that followed, I have longed, sometimes quite desperately, to ask Finn about those weeks, to ask whether they were happy only for me, whether they remained vivid only in my head. I have wanted to ask whether my presence caused any change for the better. Any change at all. But I couldn't ask. It was once again the supplicant in me, the endlessly repentant me who wanted somehow to know that it had all been worthwhile, that destruction and ruin wasn't all I brought to the little house by the sea.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780670018444
Subtitle:
A Novel
Author:
Rosoff, Meg
Publisher:
Plume
Subject:
Friendship
Subject:
Boarding schools
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Schools
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Paperback / softback
Publication Date:
January 24, 2008
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
from 12
Language:
English
Illustrations:
b/w map
Pages:
224
Dimensions:
8.60x6.40x.85 in. .78 lbs.
Age Level:
from 18

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

What I Was: A Novel Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$2.95 In Stock
Product details 224 pages Viking Books - English 9780670018444 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Former YA author Rosoff delivers an affecting buddy story about two adolescent boys in 1960s Britain. An unnamed man recounts his time as a disgruntled student at St. Oswald's boarding school; upon ditching an outdoor physical education class jog, he stumbles upon a mysterious fellow teen named Finn who lives alone and off the grid in a hut by the sea. The protagonist, enraptured by his newfound friend, makes it his business to spend as much time as possible with Finn, a major challenge considering school curfews and that the hut can only be accessed during low tide. Weeks go by and Finn falls ill, setting the stage for a surprising revelation that will dramatically transform both boys. Rosoff's unconventional coming-of-age tale is elegantly crafted, though some readers might be turned off by the narrator's unrelenting cynicism (particularly in his handling of another Oswald schoolboy), and the warning shots the narrator fires off about global warming are unnecessary. Nonetheless, Rosoff elegantly portrays how we often become who we need to be." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "An extraordinary account of an obsessive friendship between a prep-school misfit and a beautiful orphan....Great Expectations meets Death in Venice in this visceral, intensely surprising tale from Rosoff."
"Review" by , "Rosoff...creates a coming-of-age tale full of mystery and angst. Relying on a narrator looking back at his life, the reader is in for an intriguing read. Recommended."
"Synopsis" by , Set in the 1960s at an English boarding school, this novel chronicles an unlikely friendship between two boys and a scandal that shatters the idyll that has shielded and nurtured their relationship.
"Synopsis" by ,
Read Meg Rosoff's posts on the Penguin Blog.

Finn was a beautiful orphan. H was a prep school misfit. On a September afternoon many years ago they met on a beach on the coast of England, near the ancient fisherman’s hut Finn was squatting in with his woodstove, a case of books, a striped blanket and a cat. H insinuates his way into Finn’s life—his blazing wood fires and fishing expeditions. Their friendship deepens, offering H the freedom and human connection that has always eluded him. But all too soon the idyll of their relationship is shaken by a heart-wrenching scandal.

What I Was is the unforgettable story of H at the end of his life looking back on this friendship, which has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century.

"Synopsis" by , A piercing, magical story about?a life-altering friendship

Toward the end of his life, H looks back on the relationship that has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century. It began many years earlier at St. Oswal‛s, a dismal boarding school on the coast of England, where the young H came face- to-face with an almost unbearably beautiful boy living by himself at the edge of the sea.

At first, the mysterious Finn appears to have no past—his home is an ancient fisherma‛s hut with a woodstove, a case of books, striped blankets, and a cat.

H insinuates his way into Fin‛s life, stalking him with perfect patience until an unlikely friendship is kindled; a confused idyll of ?devotion and longing set against a background of blazing wood fires and fishing expeditions.

Their friendship deepens, offering H both the freedom and the human connection that has always eluded him. But in a world of conformity, can one eccentric idyll be ?allowed to survive?

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