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Powells.com
Saturday, October 16th, 2004


 

How I Live Now

by Meg Rosoff

A review by Georgie Lewis

Daisy, the narrator of How I Live Now has the voice of a damaged young woman. She is brittle, scared, tough, but naïve. Daisy, who has left New York's upper west side to visit her cousins in England, is a fifteen-year-old anorexic, self-absorbed and resentful of her stepmother "Davina the Diabolical." If this sounds like the sort of narrator that already makes you yawn please bear with me. Daisy is not only one of the freshest voices in young adult literature, she is also easily one of the most beguiling in contemporary western literature.

When Daisy arrives in London she is met by her fourteen-year-old cousin Edmond. His lit cigarette and casual approach to underage driving is quietly shocking to Daisy -- not to mention the ease at which he reads her thoughts.

Introduced to the eclectic bohemian clan of cousins and an aunt who has "Important Work To Do Related to the Peace Process," Daisy is immediately seduced. The whole set up -- a disheveled house replete with goats and meadows -- is totally cool to her, and it doesn't take long for Daisy to feel at peace. At peace that is until her Aunt Penn flies off to Oslo, and the day later a bomb goes off in a busy train station and "something like seven or seventy thousand people got killed."

With that ambiguous statement Daisy presents herself as an unreliable narrator when it comes to the outside war. We only hear about the occupation of Britain by unidentified terrorists in snippets -- such as rumors of smallpox, and threats of poisoned water. For her and her cousins, without parental support, the war commences slowly and is so far away as to appear unreal. However, when it comes to relating her and the other children's impressions her aim is true:

No matter how much you put on a sad expression and talked about how awful it was that all those people were killed and what about democracy and the Future of Our Great Nation the fact that none of us kids said out loud was that WE DIDN'T REALLY CARE.

The fact is, Daisy is having the time of her life, and most of her exhilaration comes from falling in love…with Edmond, her first cousin. As she admits:

Now let's try to understand that falling into sexual and emotional thrall with an underage blood relative hadn't exactly been on my list of Things to Do while visiting England, but I was coming around to the belief that whether you liked it or not, Things Happen and once they start happening you pretty much have to hold on for dear life and see where they drop you when they stop.

While feeling relatively safe, mildly inconvenienced by the lack of electricity and telephones, but rather gleeful about the lack of adult supervision, the cousins all handle their newfound situation differently. The eldest, Osbert, goes to the village to gossip with his school-friends, trading rumors and spy-tips. Piper, the youngest, is earth-mother to the tribe, cooking with their rations as well as foods from nature. And Daisy and Edmond burn up with the intensity of twin souls colliding. While the sex between the two is never overtly described, their emotional bond is described in touching admissions that are then quickly brushed aside with a self-deprecating comment or wry observation.

The war inevitably encroaches on their idyll however:

So there we are carrying on our happy little life of underage sex, child labor and espionage when someone came to visit us, which after weeks of Just Us Five kind of took us by surprise, to put it mildly.

The children get separated, put under adult supervision at different homes, although Daisy and the young Piper, housed together, are determined to find the others and return whole to the family home. However, as they journey under cover of night the pain, fear and realities of war become inescapable.

The narrative and the story are all handled so beautifully. To go on quoting from this imminently quotable book would begin to give away the plot even more than I have done already. But suffice it to say, this is a love story. A wise, poignant, and exceptional love story that I never wanted to put down. As we accompany Daisy we realize that what she is relating is an agonizing stretch of painful memory, and a five-chapter epilogue completes a six-year period, and concludes a time of fright and grief with a fragile harmony, albeit one that has emerged from the debris of a war that changed everything and everyone.


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