A lazy boy in a public school in the middle of nowhere becomes fascinated by a strange boy who lives alone, fending for himself, in a hut that if often cut off by the tides. A novel by award-winning author Meg Rosoff.
Carnegie winner Meg Rosoff’s What I Was will surely find a place on the shortlists for major prizes”
— Publishing News
Meg Rosoff is one of a handful of gifted writers to have seized adolescence as a territory worthy of respect. (Her books) are mordantly funny and searingly well written, they read like Samuel Beckett on Ecstasy.”
— The Times
Readers of Rosoff’s previous books, How I Live Now and Just In Case will know what a disturbing writer she is, and how disconcertingly she shifts the perspectives of time, place, reality and human relationships from those we are used to. What I Was maintains her remarkable gift for turning human life into an unfamiliar event. It’s a highly original study of intense self-love, in all its solitude. Yet as before with Rosoff, this story of bleak and unstable existence ends on a surprising note of thanksgiving.”
— Books for Keeps
Every bit as compelling and all-encompassing as the multi-award-winning ‘How I Live Now’and ‘Just In Case‘ (for which she picked up this year’s Carnegie Medal), What I Was is another coming-of-age novel which sucks the reader whole into its universe.”
— Five star review, Time Out
The narrator of Carnegie Medal winner Rosoff’s latest and perhaps most perfect novel is a 16-year-old boy who has been expelled from two boarding schools and finds himself dumped in a third, near the Suffolk coast. The school is all arbitrary rules, pretentious tradition and routine bullying. But on the beach nearby the boy finds a fisherman’s hut occupied by beautiful, competent Finn, who is everything he wishes he could be himself: athletic, self-sufficient, able, free. The relationship that follows becomes an escape and an obsession, pure and transporting, and a turning point in a life remembered by the narrator at the age of 100. It makes us fall in love not only with Finn but also with the Suffolk coast, the land, the sky and the sea passionately described in airy and crystalline prose. It’s already a classic.”
— Sunday Times
I am a century old, an impossible age, and my brain has no anchor in the present. Instead it drifts, nearly always to the same shore.
Today, as most days, it is 1962. The year I discovered love.
I am sixteen years old.
Rule number one: Trust no one.
By the time we reached St Oswald’s, fog had completely smothered the coast. Even this far inland, the mist was impenetrable; our white headlights merely illuminated the fact that we couldn’t see. Hunched over the wheel, my father edged the car forward a few feet at a time. We might have driven off England and into the sea if not for a boy waving a torch in bored zig-zags by the school entrance.
Father came to a halt in front of the main hall, set the brake, pulled my bag out of the boot, and turned to me in what he probably imagined was a soldierly manner.
“Well,” he said, “this is it.”
This is what? I stared at the gloomy Victorian building and imagined those same words used by fathers sending their sons off into hopeless battle, up treacherous mountains, across the Russian steppes. They seemed particularly inappropriate here. All I could see was a depressed institution of secondary education suitably shrouded in fog. But I said nothing, having learned a thing or two in sixteen years of carefully judged mediocrity, including the value of silence.
It was my father’s idea that I attend St Oswald’s, whose long history and low standards fitted his requirements exactly. He must have rejoiced that such a school existed – one that would accept his miserable failure of a son and attempt to transform him (me) into a useful member of society, a lawyer, say, or someone who worked in the City.
“It’s time you sorted yourself out,” he said, “you’re nearly a man.” But a less true description could scarcely have been uttered. I was barely managing to get by as a boy.
My father shook hands with our welcoming committee as if he, not I, were matriculating, and a few moments of chat with head and housemaster ensued. Wasn’t the weather…hadn’t standards…next thing we know…one can only…
I stood by, half-listening, knowing the script by heart.
When we returned to the car, my father cleared his throat, gazed off into the middle distance, and suggested I take this opportunity to make amends for my last two educational disasters. And then, with a pessimistic handshake and a brief clasp of my shoulder, he was off.
A bored prefect led me away from the main school towards a collection of rectangular brick buildings arranged around a bleak little courtyard. In the misty darkness, my future home uncannily resembled a prison. As we entered Mogg House (Gordon Clifton-Mogg, House Master), the weight of the nineteenth century settled around my shoulders like a shroud. Tall brick walls and narrow arched windows seemed designed to admit as little light and air as possible. The architect’s philosophy was obvious: starve the human spirit, yes, but subtly, employing economies of dimension and scale. I could tell from here that the rooms would be dark all year round, freezing in winter, cramped and airless in summer. As I later discovered, St Oswald’s specialized in architectural sadism — even the new science lab (pride of the establishment) featured brown glass and breezeblock walls dating from 1958, height of the ugly unfriendly architecture movement.
Up three flights of stairs and down a long featureless corridor. At the end, the older boy dumped my bag, pounded on the door and left without waiting for an answer. After a minute I was granted entry to a cramped dormitory room where three boys looked me over impassively, as if checking out a long shot in the paddock at Cheltenham.
There was a moment of silence.
“I’m Barrett,” said the blunt-featured one in the middle, producing a small black book from his pocket and pointing to the others in turn. “Gibbon. And Reese.”
Reese giggled. Barrett made some notes in his little book, then turned to Gibbon. “I give him two terms,” he said. “You?”
Gibbon, tallest of the three, peered at me closely. For a moment I thought he might ask to see my teeth. He pulled two crisp pound notes out of an expensive calfskin wallet. “Three terms,” he said.
I emptied all expression from my face, met and held his gecko eyes.
“Choose,” said Barrett impatiently, pencil poised. He squinted out from under a school cap pulled low over his face, like a bookmaker’s visor.
Barrett made a note in his book.
“I say four.” Reese dug into a pocket and pulled out a handful of coins, mainly pennies. He was the least impressive of the three, and seemed embarrassed by the ritual.
Barrett accepted the coins and looked up at me. “You in?”
Was I in on a bet predicting the demise of my own academic career? Well, it certainly offered a variation on the usual welcome. I pushed past them, unpacked my bag into a metal trunk, made up my narrow bed with regulation starched sheets, burrowed down under the covers and went to sleep.