How I Live Now
Fifteen-year-old New Yorker Daisy is sent to England to spend a summer with her unconventional cousins: Isaac, Edmond, Osbert and — plus their two dogs and a goat in a rambling English country house. So far so perfect, but the shadow of war hangs over this idyllic existence, eventually breaking in with great force and throwing everything into chaos.
Winner of the 2004 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and shortlisted for the 2005 Booktrust Teenage Prize, this is a powerful exploration of the universal themes of love and war.
That rare, rare thing, a first novel with a sustained, magical and utterly faultless voice. After five pages, I knew she could persuade me to believe anything.”
— Mark Haddon
Daring, wise, and sensitive.”
— People magazine
Powerful and engaging …a likely future classic.”
— The Observer (UK)
A crunchily perfect knock-out of a debut novel.”
— The Guardian (UK)
Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, 2004
Branford Boase Award, 2005
Michael L. Printz Award, 2005
Der Luchs des Jahres Book Prize, 2005
Julia Ward Howe Prize (Boston Authors Club), 2005
a genuinely engaging film”
lyrical and gently haunting… a tender charmer of a film”
forceful performance from Saoirse Ronan”
— Justin Chang, Variety
sees Ronan in typically watchable form.”
— Empire 3*
…beautifully directed by Macdonald… combines flights of lyricism with scenes of utter brutality.”
— The Independent 4** * * *
— The List 3*
Saoirse Ronan continues to astonish”
— Grazia 4*
Textured; tone-perfect; near-totally captivating”
— Financial Times 4*
Brilliantly captures the poetry of Meg Rosoff’s novel”
— Heat 4*
Romantic and thrilling; a great watch”
— New 4*
an intense, immersive experience that lingers long after the lights come up”
— Star Magazine 5*
impeccably crafted…beautiful cinematography.. tender direction from Kevin Macdonald”
— Daily Express 3*
A dark antidote to the usual sugary doses of big screen teen angst”
— Edinburgh Evening News
— Daily Telegraph * * * *
horribly beautiful…a potent exploration of the devastating effect of war on normal life”
— The Times 4*
Haunting, frightening and overwhelmingly brilliant”
— Teen Now 5*
— Red Magazine * * * *
My name is Elizabeth but no one’s ever called me that. My father took one look at me when I was born and must have thought I had the face of someone dignified and sad like an old fashioned queen or a dead person, but what I turned out like is plain, not much there to notice. Even my life so far has been plain. More Daisy than Elizabeth from the word go.
But the summer I went to England to stay with my cousins everything changed. Part of that was because of the war, which supposedly changed lots of things, but I can’t remember much about life before the war anyway so it doesn’t count in my book, which this is.
Mostly everything changed because of Edmond.
And so here’s what happened.
I’m coming off this plane, and I’ll tell you why that is later, and landing at London airport and I’m looking around for a middle-aged kind of woman who I’ve seen in pictures who’s my Aunt Penn. The photographs are out of date, but she looked like the type who would wear a big necklace and flat shoes, and maybe some kind of narrow dress in black or gray. But I’m just guessing since the pictures only ever showed her face.
Anyway, I’m looking and looking and everyone’s leaving and there’s no signal on my phone and I’m thinking Oh Great, I’m going to be abandoned at the airport so that’s two countries they don’t want me in, when I notice everyone’s gone except this kid who comes up to me and says You must be Daisy. And when I look relieved he does too and says I’m Edmond.
Hello Edmond, I said, nice to meet you, and I look at him hard to try to get a feel for what my new life with my cousins might be like.
Now let me tell you what he looks like before I forget because it’s not exactly what you’d expect from your average fourteen-year-old what with the CIGARETTE and hair that looked like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night, but aside from that he’s exactly like some kind of mutt, you know the ones you see at the dog shelter who are kind of hopeful and sweet and put their nose straight into your hand when they meet you with a certain kind of dignity and you know from that second that you’re going to take him home? Well that’s him.
Only he took me home.
I’ll take your bag, he said, and even though he’s about half a mile shorter than me and has arms about as thick as a dog leg, he grabs my bag, and I grab it back and say Where’s your mom, is she in the car?
And he smiles and takes a drag on his cigarette, which even though I know smoking kills and all that, I think is a little bit cool, but maybe all the kids in England smoke cigarettes? I don’t say anything in case it’s a well known fact that the smoking age in England is something like twelve and by making a big thing about it I’ll end up looking like an idiot when I’ve barely been here five minutes. Anyway, he says Mum couldn’t come to the airport cause she’s working and it’s not worth anyone’s life to interrupt her while she’s working, and everyone else seemed to be somewhere else, so I drove here myself.
I looked at him funny then.
You drove here yourself? You DROVE HERE yourself? Yeah well and I’M the Duchess of Panama’s Private Secretary.
And then he gave a little shrug and a little dog-shelter-dog kind of tilt of his head and he pointed at a falling-apart black jeep and he opened the door by reaching in through the window which was open, and pulling the handle up and yanking. He threw my bag in the back, though more like pushed it in, because it was pretty heavy, and then said Get in Cousin Daisy, and there was nothing else I could think of to do so I got in.
I’m still trying to get my head around all this when instead of following the signs that say Exit he turns the car up onto this grass and then drives across to a sign that says Do Not Enter and of course he Enters and then he jogs left across a ditch and suddenly we’re out on the highway.
Can you believe they charge £13.50 just to park there for an hour? he says to me.
Well to be fair, there is no way I’m believing any of this, being driven along on the wrong side of the road by this skinny kid dragging on a cigarette and let’s face it who wouldn’t be thinking what a weird place England is.
And then he looked at me again in his funny doggy way, and he said You’ll get used to it. Which was strange too, because I hadn’t said anything out loud.
I fell asleep in the jeep because it was a long way to get to their house and watching the highway go by always makes me want to close my eyes. And then when I opened them again, there was this welcoming committee staring at me through the window and in it were four kids, and a goat and a couple of dogs who I later got told were called Jet and Gin, and in the background I saw some cats scooting around after a bunch of ducks that for some reason or other were hanging around on the lawn.
And for a minute I was so glad I was 15 and from New York City because even though I haven’t actually Seen It All, I have in fact seen more than plenty, and I have one of the best Oh Yeah, This Is So Much What I Usually Do kind of faces of anyone in my crowd. I put on that face right then, though let’s be fair, all of this was taking me pretty much by surprise, because I didn’t want them to think that kids from New York City are not at least as cool as English kids who just happen to live in huge ancient houses and have goats and dogs and all the rest.
There’s still no Aunt Penn but Edmond introduces me to the rest of my cousins, who are called Isaac and Osbert and Piper, which I won’t even begin to comment on. Isaac is Edmond’s twin, and they look exactly the same, only Isaac’s eyes are green and Edmond’s are the same colour as the sky, which at the moment is gray. At first I liked Piper best because she just looked straight at me and said We are very glad you’ve come Elizabeth. Daisy, I corrected her, and she nodded in a solemn kind of way that made me feel sure she’d remember.
Isaac started lugging my bag over to the house and then Osbert who’s the oldest came and grabbed it away from him looking superior, and disappeared into the house with it. Before I tell you what happened then, I have to tell you about the house, which is practically indescribable if the only sort of houses you’ve lived in before are apartments in New York City.
First let’s get it clear that the house is practically falling down, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to make any difference to how beautiful it is. It’s made out of big chunks of yellowish stone, and has a steep roof, and is shaped like an L around a big courtyard with fat pebbles set in the ground. The short part of the L has a wide arched doorway and it used to be the stable, but now it’s the kitchen and it’s huge, with zig-zag brick floors and big windows all across the front and a stable door that’s left open Whenever it’s not actually snowing, says Edmond.
Climbing up the front of the house is a huge vine with a stem so thick it must have been growing there for hundreds of years but there aren’t any flowers on it yet, I guess because it’s too early. Behind the house and up some stone steps is a square garden surrounded by high brick walls and in there are tons of flowers blooming already all in shades of white. In one corner there’s a stone angel about the size of a child, very worn, with folded wings and Piper told me it was a child who lived in the house hundreds of years ago and is buried in the garden.
Later when I get a chance to look around the house I find out the inside is much more jumbled up than the outside with funny corridors that don’t seem to lead anywhere and tiny bedrooms with slanty ceilings hidden away at the top of stairs. The stairs all creak and there are no curtains on any of the windows and all the main rooms seem huge after what I’m used to and they’re scattered with big old comfortable furniture and paintings and books and huge fireplaces you can walk into and animals posing around the place to make it look even more authentic oldy worldy.
The bathrooms turn out to be pretty oldy worldy too or maybe I should say antique and make a huge noise whenever you want to do anything private.
Behind the house is tons of farmland some of which looks just like meadows and some of which is planted with potatoes and some is just starting to bloom in an acidy yellow color which Edmond says is rape as in rapeseed oil but the only kind of rape I know is the kind you read about in the paper ten times a day and always ignore unless the rapist turns out to be a priest or someone on TV.
There’s a farmer who comes and does all the planting because Aunt Penn always has Important Work To Do Related to the Peace Process and anyway wouldn’t know the first thing about farming according to Edmond. But they keep sheep and goats and cats and dogs and chickens For Decoration said Osbert in a slightly sneery way and I’m getting the feeling about him that he’s the one cousin who reminds me of people I knew in New York City.
Edmond and Piper and Isaac and Osbert, and Jet and Gin the black and white dogs, and a bunch of cats all went into the kitchen first and sat down at a wooden table and someone made cups of tea and then they all stared at me like I was something interesting they’d ordered from a zoo and asked me lots of questions in a much more polite way than would ever happen in New York, where kids would pretty much wait for some grown-up to come in all fake-cheerful and put cookies on a plate and make you say your names.
After a while I was feeling woozy and thought Boy, could I ever use a drink of freezing water to clear my head, and when I looked up Edmond was standing there holding one hand out and in it was a glass of water with ice cubes, and all the time looking at me with his almost smiling look and though I didn’t think much about this at the time, I noticed Isaac looking at Edmond in a funny way.
Then Osbert got up and left, he’s sixteen and the oldest in case I didn’t say it, which is a year older than me. Piper asked if I wanted to see the animals, or just lie down for a while, and I said lie down because even before I left New York I hadn’t exactly been getting my fair share of sleep. She looked disappointed, but only for a second, and really I was feeling so much more tired than polite that I hardly cared.
She took me upstairs to a room down at the end of a hall which was the kind of room a monk would live in – smallish and plainish with thick white walls that weren’t straight like new walls, and one huge window divided into lots of panes of yellowish and greenish glass. There was a big striped cat under the bed and some daffodils in an old bottle and suddenly that room seemed like the safest place I’d ever been in my life, which just goes to show how wrong a person can be about what’s in store for them but here I go jumping the gun again.
We pushed my suitcase into a corner, and Piper came in with a big pile of old blankets and she said in a shy way that they were woven from the sheep on the farm a long time ago and that the black ones were from the black sheep.
I pulled the black sheep blanket over my head and closed my eyes and for no good reason I could think of, I felt like I’d belonged to this house for centuries but that could have been wishful thinking.
And then I fell asleep.
I didn’t mean to sleep practically a whole day and a night but I did. And when I woke up I thought how strange it was to be lying in someone else’s bed thousands of miles from home surrounded by grayish light and a weird kind of quiet that you never get in New York City where the traffic keeps you company in a constant buzzy way day and night.
The first thing I did was to check my phone for messages, but all it said was NO NETWORK and I thought Oh boy so much for civilization and felt a little freaked out and thought of that movie where they say No One Can Hear You Scream. But then I went over to the window and looked out and there was the slightest bit of pink light over to one side where the sun must have just started coming up and a totally quiet gray mist hung over the barn and the gardens and the fields and everything was perfectly still and beautiful and I stared and stared expecting to see a deer or maybe a unicorn trotting home after a hard night but I didn’t see anything except some birds.
After a while I was cold and got back under the blankets.
I felt too shy to come out of my room, so I stayed there and thought about my old home which unfortunately led to thinking about Davina the Diabolical, who sucked my father’s soul out through his you know what and then got herself knocked up with the devil’s spawn which, when it pops out, Leah and I are going to call Damian even if it’s a girl.
According to my best friend Leah, D the D would have liked to poison me slowly till I turned black and swelled up like a pig and died in agony but I guess that plan flopped when I refused to eat anything and in the end she got me sent off to live with a bunch of cousins I’d never met a few thousand miles away while she and dad and the devil’s spawn went on their merry way. If she was making even the slightest attempt to address centuries of bad press for stepmothers, she scored a Big Fat Zero.
Before I could work myself up into a full-blown attack of hyperventilating, I heard a tiny noise at the door and there was Piper again, looking in, and when she saw I was awake she gave a little happy squeak like a mouse-cheer and asked Did I want a cup of tea?
Ok, I said, and then Thank you, remembering to be polite, and I smiled at her because I still liked her from yesterday. And off she drifted just like the fog on little cat feet. I went to the window again and looked out and saw the mist had cleared and everything was so green and then I put some clothes on and managed to find the kitchen after discovering some pretty amazing rooms by mistake, and Isaac and Edmond were there eating marmalade on toast and Piper was making my tea and seeming worried that I’d had to get out of bed to get it. In New York, nine year olds usually don’t do this kind of thing, but wait for some grown up to do it for them, so I was impressed by her intrepid attitude but also kind of wondering if good old Aunt Penn had died and no one could figure out a good way to tell me.
Mum was working all night, said Edmond, So she’s gone to bed but she’ll be up for lunch and then you’ll see her.
Well that answered that, thank you Edmond.
While I drank my tea I could see Piper squirming around wanting to tell me something and she kept looking at Edmond and Isaac who just looked back and at last she said Please come to the barn Daisy. And the Please was more like a command than a request, and then she gave her brothers a look like â€˜I couldn’t help it!’ And when I got up to go with her she did the nicest thing, which was to hold my hand and it made me want to hug her, especially since Being Nice to Daisy hadn’t been anyone’s favourite hobby lately.
In the barn, which smelled like animals but in a nice way, she showed me a tiny black and white goat with square eyes and little stubby horns and a bell round its neck on a red collar and said his name was Ding and he was her goat but I could have him if I wanted and then I did hug her because Piper and the sweet baby goat were exactly as nice as each other.
Then she showed me a bunch of sheep with long tangly coats and some chickens that lay blue eggs and she found one in the straw that was still warm and gave it to me and even though I didn’t know what to do with an egg straight from a chicken’s bottom I thought it was a nice thing to do.
I can’t wait to tell Leah about this place.
After a while I was feeling pretty shivery and told Piper that I had to lie down for a little while and she frowned at me and said You need to eat something because you look too thin and I said Christ Piper don’t you start it’s only jetlag, and she looked hurt but Jesus, that old broken record is one I don’t need to hear from people I hardly even know.
When I got up again there was soup and cheese and a huge loaf of bread in the kitchen and Aunt Penn was there and when she saw me she came right up and put her arms around me and then stood back and looked at my face and just said Elizabeth, like it was the end of a sentence, and then after a while, You look just like your mother, which was obviously a gross exaggeration since she was beautiful and I’m not. Aunt Penn has the same eyes as Piper, all serious and watching you, and when we sat down to lunch she didn’t give me any soup or anything but just said Please Daisy, help yourself to whatever you’d like.
I told them all about dad and Davina the Diabolical and Damian the Devil’s spawn and they laughed but you could tell they felt kind of sorry for me, and Aunt Penn said Well Their Loss is Our Gain, which was nice even if she was just being polite.
I tried to study her without being too obvious because I was hoping to get some kind of clue from the way she looked and acted about the mother I barely ever got a chance to meet. She made a point to ask me lots of questions about my life and listened very carefully to the answers like she was trying to figure something out about me but not in the way most adults do, pretending to listen while thinking about something else.
She asked how my father was and said she hadn’t seen him in many years and I told her he was fine except for his taste in girlfriends which was totally un-fine, but he was probably feeling lots better now that I wasn’t around reminding him about it day and night.
She smiled a funny kind of smile just then like she was trying to keep from laughing or maybe crying, and when I looked at her eyes I could see she was on my side which as far as I’m concerned made a nice change and I guess had something to do with my mother being her younger sister who died.
There was a fair amount of arguing and talking at lunch and except for talking to me she didn’t get too involved but kind of observed, and overall I’d have to say that the main feeling you got from her was that she was a little distracted, I suppose because of the work she was doing.
A little later when all the others were talking she put her hand on my arm and said in a low voice just to me that she wished my mother were here to see how I’d turned into such a vivid person and I thought Vivid? that’s a pretty strange word to choose, and I wondered if what she actually meant to say was Screwed Up. But then again maybe not because she didn’t seem like the type to sit around thinking up ways to be bitchy, unlike some people I know.
After looking at me for a few seconds more she put her hand up very gently and pushed the hair off my face in a way that for some reason made me feel incredibly sad and then she said in a regretful grave voice that she was sorry but she had to give a lecture in Oslo at the end of the week on the Imminent Threat of War and had work to do so would I please excuse her? She would only be gone a few days in Oslo and the children would take good care of me. And I thought there’s that old war again, popping up like a bad penny.
I didn’t spend much time thinking about the war because I was bored with everyone jabbering on for about the last five years about Would There Be One or Wouldn’t There and I happen to know there wasn’t anything we could do about it anyway so why even bring the subject up.
It was when I was thinking things like this that I sometimes noticed Edmond looking at me in his odd, listening kind of way and sometimes I looked back at him doing the same expression myself just to see what he’d say. But mostly he just smiled and half closed his eyes and looked more like Wise Dog than ever and I thought to myself if this kid turns out to be thirty-five I won’t be a bit surprised.
So that was pretty much all that happened on my first conscious day in England, and so far I was finding Life With My Cousins more than ok and a huge improvement over my so-called life at home on Eighty-sixth Street.
Late that night I heard the phone ring somewhere in the house and I wondered if it was my father calling to say Hey I made a mistake sending my only daughter away to another country because of some scheming harpy’s ruthless whims, but by that time I was too sleepy to bother getting up and wandering around looking for a keyhole to listen at. So as you can see, that old country air must be doing me heaps of good already.