So I have been on a biography kick of late, and haven’t devoted as much time to fiction as I would like. It’s all very well and good reading about actors and leaders and geniuses, but they don’t get to do things like transcend the limits of human biology and human experience to plunge the reader into a world a little different, a little off-kilter.
This makes me very pleased to talk to you today about Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff. I read The Catcher in the Rye at exactly the right age to feel that Holden Caulfield’s troubled musing on ‘phonies’ and the slippery adult world spoke of exactly what I was feeling as I grew out of the idealism of my teenaged years. It’s interesting to see those feelings explored in what may be a more readily accessible way in Picture Me Gone.
Our protagonist is Mila. She has a gift which doesn’t seem so bombastic but which any adult would give their eyeteeth for: the ability to discern the truth from those people (and animals) she encounters: ‘I register every emotion, every relationship, every subtext. If someone is angry or sad or disappointed, I see it like a neon sign. There’s no way to explain it, I just do. For a long time I thought everyone did.’
Mila and her father travel from England to the US to visit one of her father’s best friends whom they haven’t seen in years. However, that is scuppered quickly, for her father’s friend goes missing before they arrive. They set out on a road trip to find him, encountering a host of characters along the way. Everything is filtered through Mila’s astute point of view; hers is a world underscored by melancholy, but a world which doesn’t frighten or alienate her in the way it does Holden Caulfield. This is a character who is able to understand (without ever crossing into Ubermensch territory) the world around her and empathise with it.
In short, it’s a world we may glimpse infrequently in our own lives, or only after life has made us hard.
Mila is not hard and cynical, yet. But nor is she naive: ‘I will not always be happy, but perhaps, if I’m lucky, I will be spared the agony of adding pain to the world.’
As Salinger might have said: it’s a wise child.