Life As We Knew It by Susan Pfeffer

I stayed up until 4am reading Life As We Knew It.  Once I’ve written this I’m getting more coffee.  Yes, this is a read-in-one-sitting book.  It’s not hard and it’s quick and it’s compulsive.

This is not a dystopian novel. I saw it being described as such in a review (I forget where) and it’s absolutely in no way a dystopian setting for reasons that bloggers have discussed at length elsewhere – this is straight-out apocalyptic. Not even post-apocalyptic – this book charts the end of the world via the diary entries of a sixteen year old girl, Miranda, so we’ve got a ringside seat for the End of the World.

And oh man. It’s unsettling. I loved it.

Bush-era Pennsylvania. Welcome to Miranda’s diary! Miranda likes figure skating. A lot. Miranda and her two best friends have drifted apart since they lost a friend to illness. Miranda’s younger brother Jonny is a massive fan of baseball while her older brother Matt is studying at Cornell. Miranda’s parents are divorced. Miranda’s dad’s new ladyfriend is expecting a baby and has asked Miranda to be the godmother. Miranda’s excited but wary. Miranda is sixteen, normal, and an extremely likeable protagonist – she’s not overly bratty (except for moments, understandable moments!), her point of view has emotional weight, and Pfeffer’s writing is extremely teen with moments of gorgeousness and depth that adds a real resonance, like this excerpt from the run-up to the asteroid collision:

“I guess Ms Hammish thinks this moon thing is historical, because in history that’s what we talked about. How people throughout history have looked at the moon and comets and eclipses. Actually, that was kind of interesting. I never really thought about how when I look at the moon it’s the same moon Shakespeare and Marie Antoinette and George Washington and Cleopatra looked at. Not to mention all those zillions of people I’ve never heard of. All those Homo sapiens and Neanderthals looked at the very same moon as me. It waxed and waned in their sky, too.”
— p.13

That hasn’t got the air of impending doom about it at all, does it? No, not a hint.

There’s so much I want to say about this book. It’s about isolation and fear and life without all the modern amenities we’re used to – running water, reliable (or any!) electricity, communications, stores, fuel, even social lives and fresh air. It’s about family, about the connections between people when they’re strained and when we need to rely on other people for our own survival, and that point at which it’s not about us individually making it through, but making sure the people we love make it through (on that note Miranda’s mother is an absolute hero and there should be a mother like her installed on every street in case of emergencies). It’s about the responsibilities that come with growing up and becoming an adult, running a home, supporting other people. It’s about the waxing and waning of hope in dire circumstances and what it does to people, whether it breaks them or weakens them and what it takes to endure without losing it.

Miranda’s diary is excellent, full of everyday details that make every facet of this impossibly scary world from the mundane to the insane (the passage where her mother talks about the volcanoes actually made me shudder) feel so realistic, I actually had to look up from the book and out of the window at the night sky to make sure it wasn’t real every few chapters. It was the early hours, don’t laugh. Everything feels more real after 1am when you’re alone in the dark! We also see something of an unreliable narrator at work – her perspective is great but one can’t shake the grim knowledge that there’s a lot in what she’s not saying, what she doesn’t know, that is utterly chilling. Her mother’s reactions and behaviour is as informative as Miranda’s notes. From the moment the tidal waves sweep in we know this family isn’t experiencing the worst of it (anything but!) and Pfeffer leaves out just enough detail for these events to loom over them in their apparent absence like the ash clouds themselves. For such an uneasy read Miranda’s not actually in danger that often – an excellent approach because we know she makes it because it’s a DIARY and it goes ON.

SLIGHTLY SPOILERY PARAGRAPH BUT ONLY SLIGHTLY! Ignoring the sequels for a moment (I can’t wait to get to the second – the protagonist is right in the chaos that’s NYC, and I’ve never read a book with a Puerto Rican main character before so that’s two elements I’m very interested in), the first person perspective got me wondering a few times if Miranda’s not hallucinating, or lying, especially towards the end, or with the sickness that she miraculously didn’t get. Moments that we suspect are too good to be true feel actually far too good. I got an actual rush of relief at one point, and bearing in mind the book actually ends it suggests the end of the diary itself for whatever reason – and I liked the idea that she started making her entries up as things got too bad to write about, using fiction to escape the awfulness, pretending there’s a glimmer of hope. I suspect this is because I’ve always mistrusted first person narrations since Tyke Tiler.  ALL’S COOL slightly spoilery bit over.

And there’s more I want to say. Layers of fiction and history and she’s called Miranda like Miranda from The Tempest who was stranded too with an over-protective but damned wise parent and how it’s got a bit of an American pioneer feel to it without being overly American and how claustrophobic it felt and I need other people to read it and talk about it. I love apocalyptic fiction, I really do.

Forget dystopias for a bit. They’re epic tales of teenage angst against the system and they’re marvellous but this is a YA novel in the vein of The Day Of The Triffids, The Stand and various classics, except without the science fiction moral lessons and faintly supernatural air; this a straight-on account of a family at the end of the world struggling to survive. It had such atmosphere it was a relief to finish and look out of my window to see dawn creeping in (4am! FOUR AM!). It’s a hell of a book that actually makes you thankful for what you have. Can more teenagers read it? And more adults? Please?

Just don’t read it at night. Read it when you can look up and be reassured that you can still see the sun, or that the moon’s the right size.

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3 thoughts on “Life As We Knew It by Susan Pfeffer

  1. e6n1

    It’s great when a novel generates such a hold on you, as a reader. Like you just fell off the edge of reality.

    Reply
  2. Jordan

    This book actually is a dystopian novel because it is considered post-apocalyptic. It is post-apocalyptic because of the natural disasters that occur throughout the novel.

    Reply

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