Emotions under siege
Geraldine Brennan finds a story of love and war to captivate teenage and adult readers
How I Live Now is the book everyone over 12 should read this summer. Like this year's Carnegie Medal winner, Jennifer Donnelly's A Gathering Light, it's a classic-in-waiting about the experience of being young and trying to make sense of a world ruled badly by adults.
Meg Rosoff's narrator, Daisy, is a New Yorker trapped in a contemporary or near-future England under enemy occupation. Like Mattie Gokey, the narrator of A Gathering Light, she is a motherless teenager who is forced to be resourceful and brave.
Unlike Mattie, a logger's daughter born early in the 20th century who has to fight all the way for her education, Daisy was not born into a world in which her hopes and dreams were of little consequence. But the book's setting makes her aware of her relative powerlessness and she has to acquire Mattie's skill of seizing control of her life even as her world falls apart.
She has something else in common with Mattie: a narrative voice that insists her story is listened to, and the story forces us to imagine a 21st-century war that returns society to the living conditions experienced by Mattie, under constant threat of violent upheaval.
When she arrives to spend summer with her late mother's English family, super-cool Manhattanite Daisy has the key credentials of the privileged heroines of a certain brand of American teenage novel: guilty at her mother's death giving birth to her and furious at her father's second marriage and imminent new baby, she has developed an eating disorder and frustrated a series of psychiatrists.
Her four English country cousins are also cool, but not in the ultra-controlled and exclusive way that Daisy and her New York high-school friends are. They can take their mother's love for granted, have learned how to be individuals within their tight-knit family and clasp Daisy to their bosom. Life at their chaotically happy farm, where she is cherished without being the centre of disapproving anxiety, starts to heal her wounds, especially when the five young people are left alone and Daisy falls in love with her cousin Edmond.
We are invited to accept furtive under-age sex with a blood relative, not as a cause for hysteria but, as Daisy does, as a happy outcome in the extreme circumstances. It's so well handled that it works in the context of the story.
The brief idyll devoted to their tenderly drawn and passionate relationship has a flavour of the summer of 1914 about it; we learn slowly and plausibly that England has been invaded. Food runs short, health care collapses, electricity slowly disappears, the unsupervised children are logged on an army officer's clipboard and Daisy and her girl cousin, nine-year-old Piper, are billeted separately from the boys.
As long as Daisy's aim to reunite the family seems achievable, the tale reads like a compelling adventure story with every hope of a happy ending; we have swiftly got to know the children so well that we cannot believe they will come to serious harm. But once the girls witness their first fatal shooting, happy endings are no longer an option: it becomes clear Daisy has lost the Edmond she knew forever; her Aunt Penn, who went overseas to work on "the peace process", will never come home.
Within months of Daisy's arrival, the girls are on the run cross-country, Daisy's eating disorder has been eclipsed by a very real threat of starvation and there are many more perils ahead. The occupiers are deliberately shadowy figures (we learn only that they don't speak English, and, as Aunt Penn's destination is Oslo, they could be Scandinavian); almost as disturbing are the glimpses of "our side", military and civilian, in a world where there are as many deaths from minor infections, diabetes and appendicitis as from enemy fire.
The occupied people generate more threats for themselves: tension between fleeing city-dwellers and country people, whose food is running out, the general climate of mistrust and misinformation including public scares that range from smallpox epidemics to poisoned water, some of them justified.
Daisy and Piper's war is one of the home front, trying to keep themselves and their loved ones alive, making perilous journeys with fresh despair around every corner. Through their experiences viewed through Daisy's desperate but unsentimental eyes, we learn how war operates, how fragile our social fabric is and how the first to suffer are those in already marginalised groups: people with chronic illnesses or special needs, or the elderly. We learn how badly people can behave when in need, and how well, and how anyone who has found their true home will fight tooth and nail to get back to it.
How I Live Now is published with young teenagers clearly in mind and without looking over the authorial shoulder at the adult market, but it offers any adult who reads it a rewarding experience as well as an acute glimpse of what young people need.