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Unusual, as usual

Just in Case A Novel Meg Rosoff Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children's Books: 256 pp., $16.95

September 03, 2006|Sonja Bolle | Sonja Bolle is a freelance book editor. She also reviews children's books for Newsday.

WHEN "How I Live Now," Meg Rosoff's first novel for young readers, came out, it stunned, amazed and won all sorts of literary awards (the Michael L. Printz Award and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, among others). But a question lurked in my mind about whether Rosoff was entirely in control of her story of kids caught in a guerrilla war in today's England. Perhaps it was beginner's luck that the myopic, self-involved teen view she offered clashed in a weirdly illuminating way with a war-torn world. The novel teetered on the edge of believability.

Her second novel, "Just in Case," shows that it was no beginner's luck. Weirdness is Rosoff's medium. Meg Rosoff is the Queen of Weird.

David Case, a 15-year-old inhabitant of Luton, England (a classic nowheresville), is beset daily by the teen inability to know who he's supposed to be. He understands why his parents find his baby brother, Charlie, easier to deal with than him. David doesn't ask much, but his mother and father ask even less; they are the kind of feckless parents who have heard that teens can be trouble. David "noticed his mother attempting to peer into his mouth sometimes when he spoke. He suspected she was looking for a tongue stud."

One day, David sees his brother standing on a windowsill, precariously balanced on baby legs, spreading his arms as if to fly. He lunges for the child and drags him back to safety. In that moment, David sees the yawning abyss: "Just two seconds were all that stood between normal everyday life and utter, total catastrophe." This revelation engulfs David, who sees the hand of Fate ready to strike: "Why had this never occurred to him? He could fall down a manhole.... He could catch bird flu. A tree could fall on him. There were comets. Killer bees. Foreign armies. Floods. Serial killers. There was buried nuclear waste. Ethnic cleansing. Alien invasion."

David feels doomed. And it feels personal. Fate is after him. Then he hits on a solution: He'll become someone else. Fate will be fooled. Thus Justin Case is born. In search of a new identity, Justin (oh, what trouble he will have getting his schoolmates, teachers, never mind his parents, to use his new name!) heads for the thrift store, where he meets a photographer, Agnes Bee -- an homage to French clothing designer Agnes B., perhaps -- who will turn him into an unwitting fashion icon with her photographs of him as Doomed Youth.

So far, the weirdness is all in Justin's eye. But Rosoff has it in for her reader as much as Fate has it in for her hero. For example, the newborn Justin acquires a dog, a greyhound, the king of dogs. It is as sleek and elegant as Justin's new self, built to run just as Justin finds he is built to run when his coach bullies him into joining the track team. Running suits Justin; it's another way to flee Fate. But the dog, named Boy, is imaginary. The reader knows he's imaginary because Justin acknowledges he is. However, certain people can see Boy. He catches tennis balls thrown by Justin's only real friend, Peter. Justin himself knows how bizarre this is: "Boy trotted over and leant against Peter briefly as Justin watched in wonder. The boundary between reality and fantasy wobbled dangerously." Indeed.

Justin's brother, Charlie, is another unsettling bridge between fantasy and reality. The most compelling toddler I can remember in fiction, Charlie has that wisdom you always suspect babies of having when they consider you with those serious, clear eyes. Charlie is the only creature who understands Justin. In fact, Charlie feels a bit responsible for Justin's crisis, because it was his attempt to fly that sent Justin over the edge. But he's trying to help Justin get over it, to convey to him that communicating simple needs clearly is a good start toward sorting out complicated problems. "If I'm clear about what I want," Charlie explains to Justin, "other people have an easier time making me happy. It sounds basic, but most of the time, it works." Charlie then demonstrates the principle by using the words he has: "Duck!" Justin retrieves the toy duck for him. "See?" Charlie concludes with a satisfied smile. Q.E.D.

And then there is Fate. You can't really say that Fate is a character in the novel, but you do hear its voice. Fate speaks to Justin, whispers in his ear; Fate speaks to the reader; Fate gives hints of what it will do, toys with Justin, torments him. Then, after the novel's midpoint, the story is all Fate's; we are just along for the ride. It would be vile to reveal what Fate has in store for our hapless hero, but I will say that Fate is much more imaginative than Justin, who merely worried about snipers, garroters and so on. Fate has the further advantages of a sense of humor (black, of course) and a lot of experience in the subtleties of turning human life upside down. As Fate itself points out: "Ask any comedian, tennis player, chef. Timing is everything."

What Rosoff does brilliantly is to distill the weirdness of simply being a teenager. Justin is uniquely tormented and absolutely within the bounds of normal teen anxiety. His growing celebrity, as he is recognized as the boy from the magazine photographs, is merely a facet of that common high school feeling that you're a blinking neon sign, every fault exposed in the glare. Rosoff is perfectly capable also of evoking quiet moments; a day's outing to the seaside leads to an insight that in a lesser novel might serve as The Message. But in "Just in Case," these gorgeous passages are merely interludes between the roller-coaster rides that anyone who is or has been a frenzied teenager will find as riveting as, well, the proverbial train wreck. *

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