I read How I Live Now, the book by Meg Rosoff a few years ago. I was stuck in a hostel in the far north of Australia during typhoon season. Wet, wild and skint, the days were spent either playing monopoly with half the Chance cards missing or folding up a lumpy pillow, tucking myself behind a makeshift tent of towel and drying bikinis, and reading. As such I am still unsure how I feel about the book, where does the strange wistful mood it created leave off and my strange imposed reclusion begin? Now they are making a film about it and I feel even less sure.
If I loved it, the trailer alone would tell me that I was about to be disappointed. They’ve clearly made a lot of changes, dragging a book that predates and refuses to fit, into the current teenyboppers-meet-epic-destiny-and-snog-it-a-lot trend. The endearingly eager, though a little insipid, Daisy has grown into a funky, angst ridden emo-girl, if that’s not stating the same thing twice.
The trailer also shows that the war around which the book is set has become the main focus, as befits the action driven nature of the new genre. In the book however, the farm where the children live is so out of the way that they are, until relatively late on in the tale, untouched, their lives continuing in their quiet routine, with nothing but garbled gossip and frustratingly vague news reports about the fighting. The occupation, when it comes, is a grind, not an adventure.
Although Young Adult books generally don’t make the distinction – not yet anyway- How I Live Now is what I would generally define as literary fiction. It uses the present tense and has no direct speech, two very deliberate and artificial style choices which I find very alienating. The world itself and the war both feel frustratingly slippery. Every time you think you are starting to get a grip on them, the narrative diverts. Its a little like seeing a globe out of the corner of your eye. You can see the general shape, but the details are fuzzy and you feel like you are doing too much guesswork to fill in the spaces. We never really know why or how the war broke out, where the lines are drawn.
Then there is the relationship between Daisy and Eddie, which is the true narrative heart of the book. Though you feel it has been turned into a painfully over wrought melodrama in the film, something I am not a fan of, I can see how they might have encountered difficulty representing it as was. Despite being endearingly sweet and really quite innocent even with all the rolling about in the hayloft, it was also something of a non-event. There was a vague sense of ‘should we be doing this?’ that never came to anything. Any tension that might, or even should, have arisen out of their separation somehow fails to ignite, seeming more of a chore that must be endured than an obstacle that might not be overcome.
I can’t help feel that the differences, and perhaps failings though I’ll try and reserve judgement til the film is out :), perfectly illustrate the extremes of genre versus literary. The subtlety and realism of Rosoff’s narrative and characterisation is ruined by her stylistic choices and unwillingness to get a little dirty and specific with her plot. While, from what little I have seen of the film, small touches, such as staying true to those wonderfully quirky characters, the inverse height difference, the smoking, the endearing need to please, could have allowed Rosoff’s vision to come bursting into life without letting her pretention alienate.
I can’t be the only one who wants the best of both worlds or who believes the only thing stopping us from having it, is us.