Meg Rosoff’s ‘How I Live Now’ taught me to trust my instincts

In troubled times, The Silent Treatment author Abbie Greaves went back to the young-adult classic and realised how much it shaped her outlook on life.

Abbie Greaves
Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now
Photo: Jean Goldsmith/Penguin

In Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, there is no escape from change: it is the background thrum of threat in the novel’s setting, a parallel Britain on the cusp of World War Three; it is in the adolescence of its cast of characters, coming of age and falling in love in the most inhospitable of conditions.

And yet, even at the centre of the whirlwind, the narrator, Daisy, maintains a crystalline clarity on the strangest aspect of all this change: ‘If you haven’t been in a war and are wondering how long it takes to get used to losing everything you think you need or love, I can tell you the answer is no time at all.’

It had been a moment since I read it, though. I could remember taciturn Isaac, self-important Osbert and sweet, exuberant Piper. I could remember just how 12-year-old me had crushed on Edmond, cigarette perched on his bottom lip as he collected Daisy from the airport at the beginning of what should have been their perfect summer. Stronger yet, the memory of just how bereft I felt when I couldn’t eke out the final pages any longer. But none of that explained why, 15 years on from first reading How I Live Now, it has shaped me in a way no other book quite has. It was time for a reread.

From page one, Daisy’s voice takes you by the hand and plunges you into a world at once so familiar and so strange that it feels like walking into the house after a day in the sun; everything is as it should be but also ten tones too dark. The voice is so entirely Daisy’s that it doesn’t even matter that the details of the war are vague because we trust that we are getting just as much information as we need to understand this world, this ‘Extreme Time in History’. You would believe anything Daisy tells you.

‘If you are wondering how long it takes to get used to losing everything, the answer is no time at all’

Which is good, not least because survival hinges on that same basis: trust. Daisy, a New Yorker, could not be any more alien in the bohemian, English countryside setting. She is scythe-sharp among the rolling rapeseed fields (‘the only kind of rape I know is the kind you read about in the paper ten times a day and always ignore unless the rapist turns out to be a priest or someone on TV’), a beacon of unrelenting self-awareness in a world that seems determined to march sleepily into war. But what she lacks in outdoor skills, she compensates for with her intuition. To get both herself and Piper to safety, Daisy can only trust her instincts.

First love is no different. The terrain is as unknown, the stakes as high as those of the surrounding battlefields. Edmond, the object of Daisy’s affection, is her cousin: ‘Falling into a sexual and emotional thrall with an underage blood relative hadn't exactly been on my list of Things to Do…’ Their relationship may not be right in the eyes of society, but it is impossible to hear the confidence with which Daisy speaks her emotional truth and not, on some level, recalibrate your own sense of taboo. To deny a feeling that raw is perhaps as problematic as the issue itself.

Four hours later, I had finished my reread and I hadn’t made a single note. I had absorbed Daisy’s heartbreak in its every authentic beat. I was too busy running alongside her on blistered feet to pick up my pen and paper. Maybe I trusted that the novel would stick with me forcefully enough on second reading that I wouldn’t need a written record of my impressions. Finally, it struck – just what it was about this novel that had transformed me.

By nature, I am not the most trusting of individuals; not even close. But this is a book which taught me that, even in situations where I cannot trust others, I would do well to channel Daisy and begin by trusting in myself: my instincts, the validity of my own emotions, my voice. Change had happened just as Daisy said it would, by assimilating into my bones almost without my realising it, and showing cynical, sceptical me that sometimes, I just had to let it. To read How I Live Now is to learn that storytelling, at its best, can be a trust exercise.

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