Emma Lee-Potter is a novelist and journalist. She trained as a news reporter in the West Country (alongside spin doctor-to-be Alastair Campbell) and later worked for The Evening Standard, Sunday Express and Today. She is now a freelance writer and has had three novels published by Piatkus - Hard Copy, Moving On and Taking Sides. Her first children's novel, The Rise and Shine Saturday Show, was published in 2006. In this post Emma writes about Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now.
Emma Lee-Potter on How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
My teenage daughter Lottie was responsible for introducing me to Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now. She read this remarkable book first and, knowing how much I adored I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, kept telling me to read this modern-day 'coming of age' novel. I cheated and bought the audiobook, and on a long drive back from a holiday in Cornwall we listened to it together. The journey took five hours and for most of that time neither of us uttered a word. I was completely mesmerized and as soon as we got home I borrowed the book from Lottie to read for real.
When How I live Now was first published in 2004, it was hailed as the best adult crossover novel since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - slightly odd given that Mark Haddon's book was only published a year earlier, but still. It's true, though, that Rosoff's debut novel can be read, and appreciated, by children and adults alike. Not only that, but like all my favourite books, it's a novel I can read countless times and always discover something I didn't spot the first time round.
From the novel's arresting first sentence - 'My name is Elizabeth but no one's ever called me that' - I was gripped. The style is raw, edgy and quite unlike anything I'd ever read before. Writing in the first person, often in the present tense and with scant punctuation, Rosoff gets inside the head of 15-year-old Daisy (as the aforementioned Elizabeth is always called) so convincingly that it's hard to believe Rosoff once admitted that her experience of that age group is 'zero'.
The novel is set during wartime in a future England. Rich, spoiled, anorexic New Yorker Daisy arrives to stay with her four beguiling cousins at their dilapidated country farmhouse and inadvertently gets caught up in a terrifying war that changes all their lives. One moment I was marvelling at the eccentricities of Daisy's cousins - 14-year-old Edmond, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a haircut that looks 'like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of the night', thinks nothing of driving her home from the airport by himself in a battered old jeep - and enjoying the bitter-sweet account of the burgeoning love affair between Daisy and Edmond. The next, the reverie ends as the country is abruptly plunged into a shocking and depraved war. First a bomb goes off in London, killing thousands. Then all the airports are shut, leaving Daisy's Aunt Penn stranded abroad and the cousins forced to fend for themselves.
Just as with William Golding's Lord of the Flies, you know something terrible is going to happen the moment the children are on their own. Admittedly, they start off brilliantly. They sensibly buy up bottled water and tinned food from the village shop, drag provisions, blankets and books to the lambing barn in case they can't stay in the house and enjoy blissful summer days outdoors. As Daisy puts it:
None of us quite dared say that having no parents at all was pretty cool, but you didn't have to be a mind-reader to figure it out. Basically we couldn't believe our luck, and for a little while it felt like we were on some big train rolling down a hill, and all we cared about was how great it felt to be going fast.
Sure enough, it doesn't feel great for long. The entire mood of the novel changes again when the army sequesters the house. The two girls, Daisy and her young cousin Piper, are separated from the boys and rehoused with an army family miles away. Determined to be reunited, they embark on a traumatic journey back to the farm - witnessing senseless horrors along the way that no one, least of all children, should ever have to endure. 'Staying alive,' observes Daisy, 'was what we did to pass the time.'
Rosoff's writing flows with such assurance that it's easy to rush through this short novel without stopping to admire its skill. But each time I put the book down I can still hear Daisy's sharp voice resonating in my head. I can sense her agony at being separated from Edmond and I'm fearful about whether the cousins can ever put the damage inflicted by the war behind them. To me, that shows what a fine book this is.