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how i live now

5 april 2012

Young Adult novels seize on topics that authors and editors consider crucial to teenagers. In Meg Rosoff's Printz-Award novel How I Live Now, one crucial theme is anorexia: narrator/protagonist Daisy has been slowly starving herself for a long time.

Of course, in terms of its main plot, How I Live Now couldn't be further from the typical teen-angst story. It's mainly a postapocalyptic story of kids on an adventure: sort of The Famous Five meets The Road. And that's not to deride it as a farrago, either. If it doesn't have the plucky preciousness of Enid Blyton, it stops short of the ravaged pessimism of Cormac McCarthy. It's a middle ground, where teenagers have sex lives, confront mortal danger, and gripe about their lot in narcissistic teenage ways. In the process, they sort out their priorities, and take strides towards growing up.

I've been referring to these teenagers in the plural, but How I Live Now, though it features a family of five, is centrally about just one: Daisy, the narrator, protagonist, and general force of nature who slices her resilient way through a world gone mad. How I Live Now is a wartime novel, though not really a war novel. In England, not long after 9/11, Daisy (an American) finds herself cut off in a rural area when an occupying force of unspecified enemies seizes control of the nation. The infiltrators disrupt communications first, taking us from a world of cellphones and Internet back to a rudimentary system of wandering and rumors.

Daisy has a strong voice; she's a first-rate fictional creation. She writes in run-on sentences, the way she might speak her story to us; but these are crafted, twisty run-ons that form elegant, periodic paragraphs. Daisy's concerns are realistically those of a bored, tuned-out teenager. The effect is all the more bracing given the extremity of her situation.

The war in How I Live Now is not very well-realized; indeed, it doesn't seem to have been more than cursorily thought-through. Some of it frankly makes no sense. Both the occupying forces and the British resistance are heavily armed, and neither gives the other quarter, yet they seem at times to cooperate about boundaries and to share governance of the island. Early on, I stopped trying to figure out how Rosoff was realizing her wartime scenario. The important part is that Daisy be clueless. In her indifference to geopolitics, Daisy presents a realistic, and somewhat disturbing, image of an American kid who doesn't know Iran from Iraq, or either one from Indiana. Given such epistemological assumptions, it's no wonder that World War III reduces to some unpleasant idiots shooting stuff at random.

And in the course of all the shooting and all the starvation, Daisy starts to eat again. Her return to full appetite filters gradually into the narrative, till it becomes almost the main theme, before subsiding again behind war and romance. It's an interesting camouflage for a topical theme. One is tempted to call it "sugar-coating," except that an anorexic would reject sugar, and anyway the coating is made of blood, gore, and wilderness survival. But How I Live Now has probably gotten any number of teen readers to think more critically about eating disorders – by enticing them in through a story of postapocalyptic speculative fiction.

Rosoff, Meg. How I Live Now. New York: Wendy Lamb [Random House], 2004.