Before you all go rushing off to read it, let me preface my review by saying that this book is not going to be for everyone. If you like your books fast-paced and crystal-clear, What I Was is not for you. Ditto if your reading preference is thrill-a-minute, macho, or comedic.
This book is for you if you've ever wished you could just NOT do the whole "rat race"/"American Dream" thing, if you've ever wished you could just go somewhere and be left alone to live as you wish. If you watched Castaway and wondered why he was in such a hurry to get home... if you have ever felt like you just don't "fit" in a modern world... then you might fall in love with this book.
Going into too much detail would spoil the story, but in brief, What I Was is the story of a teen boy attending the most recent in a long line of British boarding schools in the 1960s. (His name is Hilary; this is one of those books that doesn't name the protagonist until the very end, which drives me BATTY, so I hope you and the author'll forgive me for telling you his name up-front.) When the book opens, Hilary is an old man in the mid-21st century, reflecting on what was and what could have been. He then tells his story, that of a "square peg in a round hole" who can't seem to pass his classes or make friends, who gets bounced from school to school by thoughtless, frustrated parents who just want him to grow up and join the "real world" without any care to what he wants.
While out on the beach near the school, young Hilary meets Finn, an orphan living the free, simple life that Hilary hadn't yet realized he wanted. They strike up an awkward, sometimes one-sided friendship - the prep school boy with no real-world skills who is frantic for companionship, and the windblown, competent youth who doesn't really seem to have any need for any other humans.
Hilary and Finn's idyll is never perfect, and their friendship is never simple. It becomes more and more complicated as outside circumstances push into their lives - and as their relationship evolves, the reader is filled with a lot of questions about what, exactly, is going on here. If you are like me, you'll be surprised when it all becomes clear.
What I Was is a luxurious soak in a soft-hued story written in beautifully-crafted prose, a story that affirms one's choice to reject "normal" even as it acknowledges how difficult or even impossible that may turn out to be. I was reminded of Frances Hodgson Burnett in some ways, and maybe even a little bit of Maugham or Hemingway, if only viewed through a sheet of gauze. The story appealed to my love of mid-20th century British literature, even though it was neither written nor set in that time period.