It is said that memories last a lifetime, and in the case of our “century old” narrator, H, it is one particular memory that solely occupies his thoughts as he nears his last days. Through his reminiscent voice and detailed recalling of events, we are told the story that led to his first discovery of love in the fictional novel “What I Was” by Meg Rosoff.
The story begins in 1962, when after failing out of two boarding schools, 16-year-old H finds himself at St. Oswald’s public school on the dreary East Anglia coast in England. Keen on not getting kicked out a third time, H is ready to quiet his opinionated voice and fade into the background of strict rules and seemingly endless servings of grey oatmeal and cold toast.
H makes an unexpected discovery on one uncharacteristically warm September morning when he and his fellow classmates are jogging along the coastline for their “sport” class. It is during these runs that H allows himself to drop away from the group and find refuge in a hiding place. Usually he waits patiently behind a thicket of trees, but on this morning, H finds himself near a small and disheveled shack. It is then that he is approached by the lone inhabitant, a teenage boy named Finn.
Finn is the image that H wishes he saw when he looked in the mirror: a self-sufficient non-conformist living in the exact opposite manner as H. Finn spends his days working, exploring, cooking and wandering. He doesn’t go to school, and more importantly to H, does not care about rules. Finn is a boy of few words, and what initially comes off as a cold demeanor to H blossoms into an extravagant bond between the boys.
H finds it difficult to keep from seeing Finn, and soon is sneaking from the school to the shack whenever he can. It is not a sexual relationship between the two characters, although at times the text seems to lead the reader in that direction. It is the narrator’s self-described first feeling of true love with another human. It is innocent and pure, and the feeling enraptures H in an all-consuming fashion. His private meetings with Finn do not go unnoticed, however, and H’s nosy roommate makes it his business to investigate where his illusive friend goes.
As time goes on, and Finn and H become closer, the student body becomes more and more vicious, spitting accusations at H, and rumors about his bouts of disappearance. His roommate becomes increasingly curious and as emotions escalate, the pages become a whirlwind of mayhem, betrayal, and scandal. What was once an innocent discovery of a fearless individual becomes the unhinging of an unbelievable secret that will radically change the lives of everyone involved.
Although the entire novel is not a depressing one by any means, there is a somber note behind each word that preludes an inner woe in the narrator. The old man looks back upon meeting Finn as a time of self-discovery and enlightenment, but also as a time of failure and tragedy.
The events that transpired in 1962 will haunt H forever, and as we look at his present life though his uncensored confessions, it is difficult not to feel the narrator’s angst of a life that has passed. He recalls that, “you will awake someday to find that your life has rushed by at a speed at once impossible and cruel.” Also that time does not change or dilute feelings. H feels his love for Finn near his dying days as strongly as he first felt it at 16.
This is a novel rich with passion told in an unusual voice that is worth reading regardless of age or gender. It is a coming-of-age tale told by someone already of age.