Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

I have always fiercely maintained that good writing transcends genre; it also transcends age. Meg Rosoff’s latest novel for young adults, recently out in paperback, is a case in question.

Picture Me Gone is a complex and intelligent exploration of parenthood and the effects that events can have upon relationships, seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Mila who is on a road trip with her father to find his missing best friend.

The first Mila was a dog. A Bedlington terrier. It helps if you know these things. I’m not at all resentful at being named after a dog. In fact, I can imagine the scene exactly. Mila, my father would have said, that’s a nice name. Forgetting where he’d heard it. And then my mother would remember the dog and ask if he was absolutely sure, and when he didn’t answer, she would say, OK, then. Mila. And then looking at me think, Mila, my Mila.

Mila may not be the reincarnation of her grandfather’s long-dead dog, but she certainly shares some terrier-like tendencies – in a good way I hasten to add!  She’s curious – she’s good at sensing things, she asks a lot of questions, and she’s good at looking out for her father, who has a tendency to be the absent-minded academic type.

Her Swedish mother plays in an orchestra, and while she’s off to Holland, Mila and her father Gil are going to the USA, to see his oldest friend Matthew.  But on the day of their departure, Suzanne rings to say that her husband Matthew has disappeared.  They still go – Matthew will probably turn up says her father, but Mila can sense there’s already that there’s something she’s not been told.

Suzanne and Matthew live in an architect-designed wooden house in up-state New York.  Mila is amazed by it, ‘…it looks like a beautiful spaceship that just happened to land in a clearing.’ (think the gorgeous house in the Twilight movie). But from the moment she enters she knows, ‘This is not a happy house.’  It’s the way Suzanne totally ignores the dog, a white Alsatian. ‘She has beautiful brown eyes. Loneliness flows off her in waves.

Relations between Gil and Suzanne are certainly strained, and it’s soon clear that Matthew doesn’t want to be found. It’s almost a relief therefore, when Gil agrees to investigate Matthew’s remote forest lodge, several hundred miles north into New England; they’ll take the dog with them on their road-trip. It’s April, and the weather is still wet and wintry, so it’s slow going, and they’ll spend a lot of time in motels, as you might have guessed from the book’s cover.

During the journey, Mila is in touch with Catlin, her best friend back home.  Their texting is probably the only part of the novel that would jar for adult readers.  However, it gives us time to learn more about Mila’s life back home as the only child of older mixed-European parents who’ve settled in London. Catlin is her opposite – bubbly and mischievous, attracted to boys already; their friendship is also being tested.

Mila will gradually tease out all the answers to Matthew’s disappearance – the web of half-truths that adults weave to protect themselves and negate the stark reality of the whole truth will gradually get untangled in this philosophical mystery.  Mila is no Catherine Morland from Austen’s Northanger Abbey though, letting her mind get carried away imagining the worst. As evidenced by her friendship with Catlin and the strong bond she has with her father, she’s the loyal and solid one, but she will use her dogged abilities to sniff out the truth.

At the age of twelve, Mila has liked to have things in black and white and it’s a measure of her beginning to grow up that she realises that life is mostly in between (it’s so difficult to use the phrase ‘shades of grey’ these days, clichéd as it is, but you know what I mean).  Rosoff doesn’t use punctuation marks, so the text has a feel that we’re inside Mila’s brain with her. I engaged with Mila right from the start – she’s definitely a reliable narrator, it’s the adults who are unreliable.

Being an American who has lived in London for twenty years or so, Meg Rosoff is more able than most to do justice to both sides of the pond.  She has now written seven YA novels, they’re all different, and each rather wonderful in their own way – I’d urge you to give one a try. Picture Me Gone could be a good starting point.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone (Penguin, 2013) 208pp.

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