Fifteen year old New Yorker Daisy thinks she knows all about love. Her mother died giving birth to her, and now her dad has sent her away for the summer, to live in the English countryside with cousins she’s never even met.
There she’ll discover what real love is: something violent, mysterious and wonderful. There her world will be turned upside down and a perfect summer will explode into a million bewildering pieces.
How will Daisy live then?
Crossing the genres of speculative and young adult fiction, I expected How I Live Now to be fresh, different and powerful, and it did not disappoint in any of these respects. Told from Daisy’s point of view, we experience her life over one particular summer that changed her forever; a hauntingly shocking summer filled with war and tragedy and love and heartbreak. Her voice is honest, self assured and belligerent in the way only a 15 year old can be, and we are able to see deep into her as a person – a slightly messed up, lonely, upset and confused person, even when she’s pretending not to be. Feeling abandoned by her dad and stepmother who are expecting their own baby, Daisy is excited at spending time with her English aunt and cousins; quickly forming close friendships and bonds within the family, especially with her littlest cousin Piper and the quiet, curious boy of her own age, Edmond.
Ignoring familial ties, Daisy soon decides her feelings for Edmond go beyond that of cousins, and tells simply and openly of how she falls in love with him, and how he reciprocates. Their budding relationship is at the same time pure, beautiful, uncomfortable and awkward, really getting under your skin as it challenges you to think of what love really is, and how it works, and how it should work. I’ve heard a lot of readers be disapproving of Daisy and Edmond’s ‘incestual’ relationship, but in my opinion it provides the crux of the twist of the book, and thus is a pivotal part of the narrative, not placed in there for voyeuristic or overly erotic purposes. It fits the story well and is no more uncomfortable to read about than other events further in later chapters.
Not long after Daisy arrives in England, a war begins, a war that traps her Aunt Penn in Oslo and leaves Daisy and her cousins to fend for themselves in the Eden that the farm becomes; an exciting and rule-free place, outside of regular societal conventions and adult sensibilities. However, this ‘life of paradise’ is short lived, as the war moves in closer and affects Daisy and the others in ways they could barely have imagined. An idyllic summer turns into a fight for survival; daily life becomes an escape route, and Daisy is forced to abandon the boys and the farm and run away with Piper, relying on the younger girl to hold herself together for the sake of both of them and the family they left behind.
Rosoff writes in long, extended sentences, with brief and at times non existent punctuation, so as a reader you are always as breathless and on edge as you imagine the characters to be, fighting as they are for themselves, their home and their loved ones. Daisy and Piper see sights of such unbearable horror and relate them back to us in a way that seems simultaneously bursting with and free from emotion. Isolated, starving, hurt and lost, Daisy and Piper’s adventure is painful and unforgettable, and takes you to the very bare roots of human existence. Political systems fail, human nature fails, and Daisy’s self sufficiency almost fails, as she fights her way through a world changed beyond recognition. When the war finally ends and Daisy realises she’s survived, she then has to fight to reunite the family; in doing so finding out just how much the war affected the boys and how much more of a fight Daisy has left. Edmond is not the person she left behind, and she is not the person who left him, and as a result her love for him and his for her has suffered an irrevocable change, a change that has Daisy questioning what it means to love someone in the first place, and whether love alone is enough to form a connection to someone.
For anyone looking for a happy ending, this book doesn’t exactly comply, but in my opinion it does have the ending it needed to. I enjoyed the book, I suffered, rejoiced, cried out and felt extremely uncomfortable reading it – but I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t forget about it.
How I Live Now has won three awards since its publication in 2004 (the British Guardian Prize for Children’s Fiction, the Whitbread Children’s Book Of The Year, and the American Printz Prize for YA Literature) and I feel it fully deserving of each, although to classify it as a ‘children’s book’ might be slightly misleading – for yes, it is told by a child’s voice, in a childlike and at times naïve way, but its themes are most definitely stuck in the adult world; being as horrific, unsettling and upsetting as they are. It is this marriage of childlike innocence and intense subject matter that makes How I Live Now so extraordinary, beautiful and original. Everyone should read this book at least once.