Realising that one of my favourite books is one of this year’s 25 World Book Night titles has made me rush to read it all over again.
World Book Night takes place in the UK and Ireland on April 23 (the same day as Unesco’s International Day of the Book and Shakespeare’s birthday) and will see one million books being handed out across the country in a bid to boost reading. The organisers are looking for 20,000 volunteers to give out 24 copies each of the 25 books (the additional books will be given to libraries and schools) but you must apply before February 1.
The 2012 list includes classics like Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities and Rebecca, as well as more recent titles like The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, Small Island by Andrea Levy and (hooray!) How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.
It’s seven years since my daughter suggested I read How I Live Now. Knowing how much I adore I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (another World Book Night title) she kept telling me to read Rosoff’s modern-day “coming of age” novel. I cheated and bought the audiobook and on a long drive back from a holiday in Cornwall we listened to it together. The journey took five hours and for most of that time we were so mesmerised neither of us uttered a word. The moment we got home I borrowed it to read for real.
Rosoff’s debut novel (published in 2004) can be read, and appreciated, by teenagers and adults alike. Not only that, but like all my favourite books, it’s a novel you can read countless times and always discover something you hadn’t spotted the first time round.
From the novel’s arresting first sentence – “My name is Elizabeth but no one’s ever called me that” – I was gripped. The style is raw, edgy and quite unlike anything I’d ever read before. Writing in the first person, often in the present tense and with scant punctuation, Rosoff gets inside the head of 15-year-old Daisy (as Elizabeth is always called) so convincingly that it’s hard to believe Rosoff once admitted her experience of that age group was “zero.”
The novel is set during wartime in a future England. Rich, spoiled, anorexic New Yorker Daisy arrives to stay with her four beguiling cousins at their dilapidated country farmhouse and inadvertently gets caught up in a terrifying war that changes all their lives.
One moment I was marvelling at the eccentricities of Daisy’s cousins – 14-year-old Edmond, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a haircut that looks “like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of the night,” drives her home from the airport by himself in a battered old jeep - and enjoying the bitter-sweet account of the burgeoning love affair between Daisy and Edmond. The next, the reverie ends as the country is suddenly plunged into a shocking and depraved war.
Rosoff’s writing flows with such assurance that it’s easy to rush through this short novel without stopping to admire its skill. But each time I put this book down I can still hear Daisy’s sharp voice in my head. I can still feel her agony at her separation from Edmond and I still want to know if the cousins can ever put the damage inflicted by the war behind them. To me, that shows what a fine book it is.