November 10

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Post-Hero YA?  Reading Meg Rosoff by Terry Farish

Meg Rosoff is Boston born, London based, of Ashkenazi heritage. My path to her is wild and rangy by way of Ursula Le Guin who suggested in her writing that the novel is much more than a hero’s journey.  She suggests that the stories of heroes and human triumphs that are the core of the Western canon didn’t include her. Le Guin describes her novels as “…a heavy sack of stuff, my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes, and tiny grains of things smaller than a mustard seed, and intricately woven nets which when laboriously unknotted are seen to contain one blue pebble, an imperturbably functioning chronometer telling the time on another world…”(from Le Guin’s essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”) This fascinated the heck out of me, along with more things I learned from my work with new Americans and the way they tell stories, that there are many ways across cultures and genders to tell a story. It was with this lens that I read Rosoff.  

I saw something that seemed authentic to life in Rosoff’s novels.  Her main characters serve as witness and interpreter.  Rosoff’s narrators are not interested in a hero’s journey.  Rosoff writes her characters as part of a web and that’s never truer than in her 2021 book, The Great Godden.

The narrator in The Great Godden is the oldest of four children and is not named. I’d become accustomed to Rosoff’s female interpreters of the world after reading Mira in Picture Me Gone and Daisy in How I Live Now, and elements flashed in my mind to Rosoff’s own’s life as she describes herself in interviews. But the narrator’s gender is not identified by choice, Rosoff writes.  So I will call the narrator they. They is in the role of witness to all the players who gather to live in two houses by the sea for a long, summer holiday. 

The narrator feels ominous unease upon the arrival of Kit Godden when Kit and his brother join their family’s holiday.  Younger sister Mattie falls in love with Kit breathlessly fast, but the story climaxes into a revelation that this is not a story about summer love.  This is a story about power and control and gaslighting, the narrator’s word for what Kit does.  Everyone’s get a story arc in Rosoff’s understated style, meaning much is between the lines for the hungry reader.  There’s certainly no hero.  Most everyone gets hysterically funny dialogue.

The narrator is not the main victim, though Rosoff makes sure that they are not immune to Kit.

The narrator is also in no way passive.  They studies people “the way a wild-life photographer might study ring-taled lemurs.” They study the great Godden, Kit: “He closed his eyes, and the sun settled on the fine arch of his brow. Looking at him was like staring at a prism; you saw someone different from every angle. The one definite was that you couldn’t stop looking at him.” They also interrogates themself after praise from Kit:  “At that moment I felt flattered and special and awash with well-being. While somewhere in the distance a red light flashed.”

The main victim is, first, the younger sister, Mattie, and then there is a future victim in events that change the lives of them all.  In granting the narrator the skill to witness and interpret, Rosoff makes that ability the heart of the book, the narrator’s cutting observations, their own vulnerability, their own ability to see at different angles with new eyes. If this could be called a love story, it’s the new awareness and respect the narrator grants to sister Mattie.  Kit binds them.

Picture Me Gone is my favorite of Rosoff’s books.  The narrator, Mira, though always on stage, is also a witness to the central drama of the story.  Mira, the observer, travels with her father to find his missing best friend in upstate New York.  In the house the friend has left, Mira sees, “a pair of muddy shoes. A stack of bills. A cracked window. A closed door. A pile of clothes. A skateboard.  A dog. Click. Click. Click.  This is not a happy house.” 

Once again, Mira is the astute observer. And in the process of interpreting, she is key to the web of relationships. Rosoff brings a purpose and sensibility to the role of a YA narrator, even a deeply respectful view of the wisdom of a teen who’s paying attention to the detail around her. 

A key relationship in the story is between Mira and the missing man, who is close to committing suicide.  Their exchanges are brief texts until nearly the end, when they meet and she confronts him. 

Mira says, “What sort of person are you?” Anger chokes me. “Have you ever thought about how Gabriel [Matthew’s baby] will feel? Or Honey? [Matthew’s beloved German shepherd]. It’s not just you. It’s not just your life.” …“I don’t understand how you’d think doing that is going to make it better for anyone but you.”

“You’re not an ordinary child,” Matthew said.

Rosoff ends How I Live Now, the story of Daisy and her English cousins who barely survive a years-long enemy invasion of England including the countryside where they live. The novel ends with a list of plants that saved their lives during the war: hazelnuts, blackberries, field mushroom, watercress, wild garlic, and apples. Maybe Rosoff made of bag to carry the lot of them not to a triumph but to what might help them remember or discover how to live, as Le Guin describes what a novel might do.

Terry Farish is a former children’s librarian and writer.  Her books include the YA novel in verse, The Good Braider and, with OD Bonny, A Feast for Joseph, illus. by Ken Daley.