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Underground Reading: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

How_i_live_now_2Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now (2004) is the award-winning novel of a young woman caught in World War III. Daisy is a world-weary fifteen year old New Yorker, sent (exiled) to her family in Britain by her father and "wicked stepmother". Daisy's been wrestling with, amongst other things, a severe eating disorder, and one of the book's strengths is how this sensitive topic is portrayed. Daisy is honest and transparent about her anorexia, but her character isn't defined by her "issues" - she's a complex, interesting, holistic human being (e.g. this ain't Go Ask Alice).

Daisy quickly falls in love with her new rural surroundings and her quirky cousins. This includes Edmond, a male cousin of Daisy's age, where the love crosses a few - cough - conventional lines. Again, Ms. Rosoff leaves this to the reader to draw their own conclusions, not whether or not Daisy and Edmond are having a physical relationship (they are), but how/if we should judge them.

This slightly awkward bliss is shattered by an invasion by unknown, never-named powers. Britain swiftly falls and is occupied. Although Daisy occasionally mingles with resistence fighters, most of How I Live Now is about survival: finding food, finding her family and generally eking out another miserable day.

How I Live Now is reminiscent of the work of an even earlier era - the invasion literature of late 19th and early 20th centuries, starting with George Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" (1871). In "Dorking", the protagonist, a nameless soldier, is also witness to a successful invasion of Britain - and similarly spends most of the book trudging hither and yon, mostly looking for food. In a sense, both "Dorking" and How I Live Now share the same themes. Our world - "civilised" society - is unprepared for the horrors of war. Admittedly, "Dorking" approached this with more of an overtly political agenda, while How I Live Now is more about the transience of creature comforts. Both books also reduce the individual - neither the unnamed protagonist of "Dorking" nor Daisy are heroes. They are survivors (barely); rebels only in spirit. These are microscopic personal histories, not epics.

The vast majority of How I Live Now is brilliant - including, as noted above, all the "hard stuff". Daisy's eating disorder, the incest, life in occupied Britain - all of these are tricky and Ms. Rosoff handles them with a kind of elegance and honesty, leaving the reader to draw (and discuss) their conclusions.

However, How I Live Now is not without flaws. Namely, the seemingly random use of psychic powers. All of Daisy's cousins seem to have mutant powers for no explicable reason - possibly there's some sort of "state of grace" notion behind it all? Edmond's telepathy is the most frustrating, for two reasons, both of which are spoilers - avert yer eyes:


First, he and Daisy spend most of the book separated. They are still connected though, because she has flashes of what he can see, and knows that he can read her as well. 

Second, Edmond is scarred at the end of the book - he's witnessed a massacre, and because of his telepathy, he has PTSD.

In both cases, the telepathy adds nothing. Daisy could still "feel" connected to Edmond, purely as a matter of young, romantic love - a sort of "convincing herself" that she can feel him. And there's no reason Edmond has to have telepathy to have PTSD - watching a massacre will do that to anyone.


Ok, you can come back now.

But because we know Edmond is special, How I Live Now infers that what Daisy and Edmond are feeling is beyond what we - as ordinary people - can feel. Daisy is supernaturally close to Edmond; a closeness that we couldn't have. Edmond is likewise supernaturally sensitive; he feels a pain we could never understand. This, to me, is wildly frustrating, as it undermines everything Ms. Rosoff accomplishes in the rest of the book, to whit, make us sympathise and connect with Daisy's situation. 

It also, in the great scheme of the plot, does nothing. By contrast, I think of Sophia McDougall's Romanitas series. When I interviewed Ms. McDougall, I asked her why one of her characters had supernatural powers, and she answered:

"I... thought that deploying one major cheat on the characters’ part would allow me to maintain how formidable the opposition that they were facing really was. I wouldn’t be able to rely on the opposition being stupid or things being improbably easy – so this allows the characters to do things that they could do in no other way. It allows me to tell a story about extremely vulnerable, disenfranchised people who are up against an extraordinarily implacable set of enemies and a set of structures that are designed not to let them Pass Go. Yet, I can still have something happen rather than let them just die." (April 2011)

In contrast to Ms. Rosoff, Ms. McDougall incorporated psychic powers to allow the characters to live, to thrive and to move the book forwards. In How I Live Now, however, we have characters that are psychic for no discernible textual purpose - the fantastic for its own sake. The result is counterproductive: a whizzy layer of the supernatural that actively alienates the reader.

This is, of course, one flaw in an otherwise terrific book. How I Live Now is provocative, and the writing somehow manages to be both graceful and brutal. Its primary lesson, ultimately, is that less is more - having the simple, important things is all we need. It is therefore a slight shame that the book is also let down by an unnecessary layer of complexity. But, if there's a second lesson in How I Live Now, it is that none of us are perfect - and who are we to judge?