This lovely novel of friendship and history is about how life can change, for better or for worse. Set in 1962, What I Was begins as Hilary, the young narrator, is packed off to St. Oswald's boarding school for boys deep within the inhospitable plains of East Anglia. Even though the school has a reputation as a veritable hotbed of cultural mediocrity, there's also hope that St. Oswald's will somehow transform Hilary into a more useful member of society.
Still haunted by his "last two educational disasters" and jaded by the petty dealings of his fellow classmates, life at St. Oswald's is anything but happy for Hilary. An obviously bright young man, Hilary spurns education, considering the school nothing more than a cheap merchant of social status and an institution that is "content to sell an inflated sense of self-worth to middle-class boys who are ultimately of no particular merit."
Hilary hungers for new experiences far from the bleak halls, glares of authority, and taunts of his roommates. One afternoon, after stopping for a drink of water while jogging with his classmates along the coast, Hilary meets Finn,
who at first glance seems to be living a life like Robinson Crusoe.
Self-sufficient and contented, Finn makes his living hauling boxes at the
market. He not only has no parents; he lives alone and doesn't go to school. According to the government, Finn doesn't actually exist.
Living in a small, cozy hut by the edge of the beach, with its floors free of sand, its worn cotton rugs and its crammed bookcases, the place is unassuming, comfortable and intimate, proving to be the perfect safe harbor for the disconsolate Hilary. Finn's spirit is new and soft, and the cottage is warmed by decades of use. Almost at once, this eccentric and reclusive young boy entrances the reject from St. Oswald's, who suddenly feels as though he's "fallen down a rabbit hole into some idealized version of
This Boy's Life."
Soon enough, Hilary is becoming ever more obsessed with Finn as he attempts to escape both day and night from the daily rituals of St. Oswald's, endeavoring to spend time with his new friend, similarly envious of him and also concerned. Hilary even begins to stalk Finn at the local market, everything he knows about Finn eventually coming to him in fragments and tiny shards to number and label and fit together.
Despite the cold, they spend their days walking and fishing, lying on the beach and staring at sunlit clouds or stars in the night sky, pulling in the traps, and messing about in boats, life so idyllic and so safe. Hilary seems content to just study Finn the way another boy might study history, determined to memorize his vocabulary, his movements, his clothes, and what he says and does. Most of all, however, Hilary wants to see himself through Finn's eyes and to define himself in relation to Finn.
The attraction isn't particularly sexual, although there is a great love here.
It's more vicarious, Hilary buoyed along by the sensation of living inside another person's life. Eventually ignoring the ever-harsher
frowns of authority and his classmates' taunts, Hilary becomes much more of a risk-taker, braving the school's nightly curfews to spend even more time with Finn.
The accusations begin in whispers, encouraged by roommates Reese, Barrat and Gibbon. Reese's psychotic tendencies take him to places he's rather not go, and
he "lurks and lingers and buzzes around in Hilary's head" with his sticky friendship, sly questions, and barest suggestions that he knows what is going on. Events come to a disastrous and dreaded climax on the sandy shores of East Anglia as a huge storm tears down the coast, endangering Finn's hut and the life the two boys have forged together.
Here, against the wondrous roar of the ocean, memory, imagination and reality clash with tragic consequences for everyone. Succumbing to emotions
both wonderful and terrible, Finn accepts Hilary's love instinctively, without responsibility or conditions; that is what makes him so special. The final revelation, the surprise twist, is indeed unexpected, but it doesn't really change Hilary's reaction to the events of that year, even as
he freaks out and runs away when he discovers Finn lying on his back in bed, sick with a fever and mysteriously covered in his own blood.
What I Was is a boy's story with a twist, but the book is also a profoundly philosophical meditation on history and how we carry the past with us wherever we go. This story is one of many, or many parts of several different stories, along with those lives that have come before us, "the messages of the past left in bones."
Finn and Hilary share a childlike delight in the beauty of the natural world and in the simplicities of daily life.
They possess an unshakable integrity that ultimately makes possible their appreciation of nature, and of each other. The story's emotional clarity is enhanced by the fact they are different yet drawn together forever, even as we watch Hilary drive to recreate what has been shattered by these powerful winter storms, and by the metaphorical passage of life itself.