Each week on Friday Faves I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction. This week’s book is shared by author Robyn Mundy:
Confession 1: I’m a bit of a YA novella groupie.
Confession 2: I’m decades older than the intended readership.
My YA obsession began as a less old adult, by accident or serendipity or call it what you will, when my then teenage niece finished the last page of Looking for Alibrandi and gave an unaffected sigh—the kind that grabbed my attention; the kind that signals a sensation between gratification and a grieving kind of loss from leaving, like the end of summer holidays, a hypnotic world. My niece and I were sprawled out on the beach. ‘You have to read this,’ she said, and I did, sunblock forgotten and destined for toast, spellbound by the world held within those pages. I finished Alibrandi in a single sunburnt sitting.
Fast forward ten years to The Hobart Bookshop. Overwhelmed by the shelves of literary fiction I stalked a pair of worldly looking teenage girls surveying the YA books. ‘Could either of you possibly recommend a really good YA read?’
The tall girl looked at me knowingly. ‘For you?’
Without derision she asked, ‘Have you read Meg Rosoff?’ I shook my head. ‘Then you haven’t lived,’ she said. She extracted a slim volume from the shelf and that’s how I came to read and fall in love with How I Live Now.
How I Live Now is the story of 15-year-old Daisy from Manhattan, shipped off to England by her exasperated father to spend a summer at her aunt and cousins’ farm. The cousins Daisy meets are no ordinary relatives, especially Edmond, who greets Daisy at the airport:
I’ll take your bag, he said, and even though he’s about half a mile shorter than me and has arms as thick as a dog’s 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…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…
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 on to 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 thirteen pounds fifty 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. (pp. 5–6)
Daisy’s four cousins enfold her into their eccentric lifestyle. But when their mother—Daisy’s aunt—goes away on business and London is besieged by an unnamed enemy, they find themselves cut off and alone. There are no adults to take charge, no rules, and despite the looming presence of war the farm remains a kind of Eden for a time, where Daisy’s bond with her cousins develops into something exceptional. And then their world implodes.
What powers this novella is a sustained and utterly pitch-perfect voice. As one Goodreads’ reviewer writes: I immersed myself in the streaming consciousness of Daisy’s narration and breathed after 10 hours or so. What lingers is the outcome—a future for which the book is named—that tore to strips my preconceived notion of what a young reading audience is capable of handling.
Meg Rosoff’s debut novella, published by Penguin and winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, is a stunner for adult readers, young or otherwise.
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