How I Live Now
What an odd, unsettling little book How I Live Now is. Should I be surprised that this received the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult fiction? It seems all of the YA award winners these days are for stories that push the envelope. And this one does. It really does.
Daisy has spent her entire fifteen years in New York City and is a full-fledged sullen teenage urbanite. She and her new step-mom, who is newly pregnant, don’t get on, so Daisy’s father decides to send her to live in England with an aunt she has never met and a bunch of homeschooled cousins. All of them live on a dilapidated farm in the middle of nowhere. Whoopee, Daisy thinks.
It doesn’t take Daisy long to see that things in her new home are a bit different. Aunt Penn is an important member in the peace movement and is constantly busy. The remaining four cousins are an eclectic bunch, to say the least. Almost immediately, Daisy gets the strong feeling that her slightly younger cousin, Edmond, can somehow read her mind. Piper, who is nine, has a bit of a saintly, ethereal feel to her, and Isaac, Edmond’s twin, almost never talks. But they are friendly and Daisy finds herself settled in much sooner than she would have expected, living the farm life and taking things at a snail’s pace. Then Aunt Penn leaves to go on a short trip and terrorists bomb London, leaving thousands dead. England is at war.
The best part of the novel is how the author portrays war from a child’s perspective. At first, nothing much changes. It’s actually better for Daisy because there are no adults around and she and her cousins can do what they want without supervision. Then things start to get a bit more difficult. With the power infrastructure down, life gets more complicated. Since they are on a farm and it is summer, the kids do not face starvation, but their diet becomes less varied and procuring food becomes a cumbersome problem. Violence does not break out right away, and, buried in the country, the kids are at a loss to what kind of war this really is. But eventually people start dying, the violence accelerates, and all of their lives are thrown into limbo.
Rosoff’s angle on the war isn’t to expose the violence – although some scenes might upset younger teens – but to show the randomness and the pointlessness of it all. Good characters die, annoying characters die, animals die, but no one really benefits from any of it. Death just arrives, eventually, even though the terrorists aren’t particularly interested in racking up a big body count after their first big splash. Also, the author highlights how quickly today’s lifestyle breaks down in the absence of the electrical grid and modern communication.
More troubling is the author’s portrayal of adults. All of them are either distracted or pointlessly meddlesome. By contrast the children are remarkably self-sufficient. While the book’s perspective is that of a teenager looking at war – and the plot depends on Daisy’s lack of control of her life – it would have been nice if one of the adults in charge of these kids had been responsible.
What will bother more readers, however, is the relationship that develops between Daisy and her first cousin, Edmond. It is both intense and sexual, and, unchaperoned, they have a significant amount of time to explore it. While their physicality is pretty much off-screen, the fact that two such young (and closely related) teens are becoming sexual so quickly and so intensely – did I mention that the book pushed the envelope? I wasn’t just talking about the violence. What’s odd here is that Edmond as a character is pretty one-dimensional. He doesn’t do much except read Daisy’s mind. Their relationship isn’t really necessary for the plot either and the book doesn’t read like a romance. So one can only infer that Rosoff includes this stuff just because.
How I Live Now is most memorable in telling the story of Daisy’s survival and how she learns to take care of herself and others. The war detail is interesting, but there are moments I wish I could go back and unread. Still, Rosoff’s style is individual and humorous in spots and Daisy is a memorable character. Young and/or squeamish readers should steer clear of this one, but if you’re looking for something unique and affecting, pick this one up.