By all appearances Jonathan Trefoil is living the dream. He works in marketing in New York City and has a stunning girlfriend who everyone would tend to think is well out of his league. He knows his life isn’t all that fantastic, of course. Marketing involves getting excited about stationery and hanging around trendy, trendy hipsters with a penchant for verbing nouns. And his girlfriend Julie sees him as a bit of a curio. She knows it. He knows it.
What’s more, Jonathan’s dogs know it. They’re not even his dogs – his brother flew off somewhere too exciting for dogs, let alone Jonathan, and left Dante the bordercollie and Sissy the spaniel cooped up in Jonathan and Julie’s increasingly cramped apartment. Julie can’t stand them and thinks they’ve got it in her for. He can’t admit it to her, of course, but Jonathan’s already got his suspicions that the dogs are taking over his life – and in more than one sense of the phrase.
There’s a definite Adrian Mole vibe running through this novel. Jonathan is overly introspective and insecure, as disbelieving of his good fortune landing Julie as everyone else, and frequently spends time indulging daydreams and other fantasies. Some of them feed the grand comic book slash novel he’s working on called New York Inferno, recasting everyone he knows (and everything that annoys him) in a version of Dante’s (the poet’s, not the dog’s) Hell based on New York City.
Whether Dante and Sissy really are showing a sentient concern for Jonathan’s life and are trying to nudge him in a better direction, or whether he’s just projecting on to them his own sense of self-doubt, is a nice joke that Meg Rosoff keeps going for much of the book. The novel manages to pivot around its furry plot devices without actually being a very dog-heavy book, so even this cat person wasn’t put off.
And it’s a bit more cheerful than Rosoff’s How I Live Now too.
Daisy has been sent away from the impossibly high standards of New York City to stay with her rustic relatives in rural England. Here, her father hopes, Daisy will ‘get over’ her eating disorder. Or at least, as her stepmother hopes, not be such a burden on a family unit that has Daisy’s spoilt stepbrother very much at its heart rather than Daisy.
Sure, the media is full of images and stories of terrorist attacks here, atrocities there, British military action all over the place, but when was it any different? So Daisy doesn’t pay much attention to any of that – even more so when she meets her cousin Edmond. They’re not even sure whether it’s okay for cousins to fall for each other in the way Daisy and Edmond do, but it’s not as if they choose to.
Then there’s a massive attack in London. Daisy’s civil servant aunt leaves them alone to head into Europe on a diplomatic mission. The British military ships out. And in the English countryside Daisy and her relatives are given an official warning to stay inside their remote cottage because of a smallpox epidemic. But there is no smallpox. The country has been invaded.
How I Live Now is from start to end a visceral novel – a visceral love story followed by a visceral trek behind enemy lines in a near-abandoned corner of Britain. Most of the war (if there is indeed a war being fought) happens off the page. Daisy’s experience of it is to see what’s left after the killing has already been completed. Her war is one of ruins and separation, and rumour and propaganda.
Driven by fear and a need to protect Edmond’s young sister, Piper, she feels her way through the plot. There isn’t time to think. And when she does, her mind is usually elsewhere anyway. It’s a short novel, despite being eventful, and sometimes I felt that it would have felt more immediate had Daisy been narrating it in the present tense, rather than commenting on it from the safety of a future we know she gets to see, even if not everybody else does.
I had actually seen the film version of this one before reading it, so I remembered what would happen. I also remembered several rather bleak scenes (that reminded me of the bleaker parts of The Road) that aren’t in the novel at all. Not entirely sure they added much except extra trauma.