Meg Rosoff writes stories that deal with some dark, heavy stuff—life and death, love, loss, trauma. For example, her 2004 debut, How I Live Now, is about a fifteen-year-old girl with an eating disorder who is visiting relatives in (present-day) England when the country is invaded and thrown into chaos. A nightmare scenario, a recipe for a bleak tale—and yet it isn’t so.
Rosoff has a knack for creating quirky, mixed-up characters whose lives refuse to follow some formulaic storyline, and she’s brilliant at blending warmth, humor, darkness, and madness. I think she’s one of today’s best and most original fiction writers for young adults. (Not just for young adults, mind you: A good story is a good story.)
I recently read her 2006 novel, Just in Case. It’s not every day you read a book about Fate—capital-F Fate, a character in the story who takes over the narration here and there, and who apparently has it in for a fifteen-year-old English boy named David Case.
The story opens with one-year-old Charlie tottering at an open, upper-story window in David’s bedroom, where a single step would send him falling to his death. David pulls his brother back from the edge:
My god, David thought. If I’d been just two seconds slower he’d be dead. My brother would be dead but I’d be the one shattered, crushed, destroyed by guilt and blame and everyone everywhere for the rest of my life whispering He’s that kid who killed his brother.
And so David begins ruminating on something we all face: the reality of risk. At any moment some disaster could strike that could completely change (or end) your life or mine, and we probably won’t see this disaster coming and there’s probably not a lot we can do to stop it.
How can you be happy knowing that your happiness can be snatched away at any moment by some unseen, malevolent hand?
And so David begins ruminating, and it begins to drive him crazy. He becomes convinced that Fate is out to get him. David avoided one trap, but next might get him, or the one after that. Just in Case is largely the story of this boy’s descent into madness.
Which sounds really dark—and in a way it is—but the story is so weird and goofy, and the darkness is balanced by the author’s playfulness and her protagonist’s determination to save himself. Hoping to throw Fate off his trail, he begins crafting a new identity, calling himself Justin (think about it), dressing in odd clothing selected by his new fashionista photographer friend Agnes, adopting an imaginary greyhound dog he calls Boy, and going out for his school’s cross-country team because running seems like the thing to do now.
And at the same time the author frequently goes inside the precocious head of David/Justin’s little brother, Charlie, a toddler who understands far more than he can communicate with words.
Fate, meanwhile, closes in on Justin, toying with him.
The plot is difficult to summarize. There’s Agnes and her ever-present camera, shooting photos of Justin than end up in an art exhibit—does she love him or is she using him? There’s the plane crash at the airport where Justin has been hiding. There’s the search for Justin’s missing imaginary dog, a bout with a life-threatening illness. One thing I like about the story is that so much of Justin’s self-involvement, his moodiness, and the way he’s convinced that he is the center of fate’s schemes (for example, he sees the plane crash as Fate’s attempt on his life) is in some ways just a wild exaggeration of normal adolescent narcissism.
Much of the writing is combines humor and warmth with desperation and madness, as in Justin’s friend Peter’s encounter with Boy, Justin’s imaginary dog. Peter is a gentle soul who doesn’t judge his friend and is surprisingly matter-of-fact about Justin’s oddest ideas:
The following day, Peter fell into step with Justin just as he walked home from school. Looking down to the approximate area of Justin’s left heel, he smiled. “Hiya, boy.”
Boy trotted over and leant against Peter briefly as Justin watched in wonder. The boundary between reality and fantasy wobbled dangerously.
Peter throws a tennis ball for Boy, who retrieves it. Later, back home, Justin has mixed feelings about Boy’s obvious affection for Peter:
The two might have been old friends, the way they fell in together.
But Boy’s my dog!
Maybe it’s a plot, he thought. Maybe they’re working together. Maybe Peter is Boy’s human spy contact, brought in as a backup.
He looked at Boy. The dog had managed to wedge his narrow back under the kitchen radiator for warmth and was snoring contentedly.
Justin sighed. I can’t even trust my own imaginary dog. How much lower can a person get?
I don’t want to spoil the ending or try to find too much of a moral in the story, because Rosoff’s books are not about lessons any more than they’re about neat, tie-it-up-with-a-bow endings. But at a crucial point, one of Justin’s friends says something important that, to me, sums up the story:
“’Justin?’ She poked him shoulder, not gently. ‘Stop thinking about yourself for a change. The answer isn’t in your head, it’s out here, with us.’”