Sunday, October 29, 2006

Believing in Imaginary Dogs...

I need to take a moment to rave about a (relatively) new novelist that I've come across recently. Meg Rosoff has published two novels: 'How I Live Now' and the very recent, 'Just in Case'.

I read 'How I Live Now' a few months ago and was captivated. The curious thing is that I find it really hard to explain why I like her writing so much. It's something to do with the atmosphere that she creates; the world of 'How I Live Now' is both magical and believable, a world in which all things are recognisable but subtly different to our world. In the novel a teenage girl, Daisy, is sent to live with relatives in Britain. Daisy is a New Yorker with a troubled background when she lands in the idyllic Britain of the novel. Her cousins inhabit a ramshackle, aristocratic country estate from which (as in all good children's fiction) adults are almost completely absent. I hesitate to call this children's fiction, though, because there are some very adult concepts including a very sweet but sexual relationship that develops between Daisy and her cousin Edmond. Even I did a double take when presented with this relationship. Then there's the war that hits Britain and a less satisfying second half of the novel involving Daisy and her young cousin Piper on the run across the countryside. While the characters are exquisitely drawn and the atmosphere is maintained, I felt some aspects of the plot, to do with Britain being over-run by shadowy terrorists, were unconvincing at times.

'Just in Case' is similarly set in Britain but the suburban setting of Luton is a long way from the romanticised England of 'How I Live Now'. While the setting is more realistic, this novel still has the magical atmosphere of the first. The novel is concerned with David Case, a teenage boy who becomes terrified of fate after saving his baby brother from falling out of a window. David changes his name to Justin (get it?) and proceeds to change everything about himself in order to trick fate into not recognising him. As part of his new life he becomes friends with Agnes, an eccentrically-dressed 19 year old photographer who recognises David/ Justin's tragic beauty. Justin starts competing in cross-country running and at some stage acquires an imaginary dog (yes, you heard right) who some other characters can see. It is the beauty of Rosoff's writing that I was totally convinced by 'Boy' the imaginary greyhound, and was so far from questioning his presence in the novel that I actually began thinking, 'Yeah, greyhounds are great, maybe I should get a greyhound.' The plot, once again, is the weakest aspect of the novel. The events meander along, but the writing is so compelling that, to be honest, I didn't care what happened. I just wanted the novel to never end.

It's her ability to pull her audience into a new world, to present them with 'unusual' relationships and imaginary dogs and the like, and to have the audience not only not question this world but to want to hurl themselves headlong into it, that makes Meg Rosoff such an interesting and talented writer, and one that, I feel, is yet to produce her best work. I can't help but think that when she really hits her stride she will produce some very exciting writing.

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