“Translating books is an odd way to make a living. It is customary to translate from your second language into your first, but among my father’s many friends and colleagues, every possible combination of language and direction is represented.
Gil translates from Portuguese into English. Most translators grow up speaking two or three languages but some speak a ridiculous number; the most I’ve heard is twelve. They say it gets easier after the first three or four.
The people I find disturbing are those with no native language at all. Gil’s friend Nicholas had a French mother and a Dutch father. At home he spoke French, Dutch and English but he grew up in Switzerland speaking Italian and German at school. When I ask him which language he thinks in, he says: Depends what I’m thinking about.
The idea of having no native language worries me. Would you feel like a nomad inside your own head? I can’t imagine having no words that are home. A language orphan.” (pp. 45-46, iBooks on Mac edition, beginning of Ch. 9)
Meg Rosoff’s most recent novel, Picture Me Gone, is hard to summarize succinctly. Perhaps those hoary old descriptors, “coming of age” and “Bildungsroman,” might capture a small facet of the story of young Mila, but the wry observations and wide-ranging perspectives of the narrator are not typically those one might expect to find in a work written for a teen audience. No, there are certain exceptionalities within this book that defeat attempts to place it squarely within a singular category. Certainly Picture Me Gone is not a work that should be read in a rush, as there are layers to the narrative that make a slower contemplation of the characters and their developments a rewarding exercise.
Picture Me Gone first struck me as an introspective novel about how we, especially those of us who are still developing their world-views, try to position ourselves within the larger picture(s) of life around us. The passage quoted above, which is part of a larger series of musings on language and identity, is representative of Rosoff’s excellent characterization. Here Mila struggles to comprehend the possible rootlessness of those who possess multiple loci – in this particular case, “native” language(s) – and for whom life is less a linear journey along a personal timeline and more a series of bifurcating paths that weave in and out of others’ own walks of life. Such an observation does not come from one wedded intimately to one’s own surroundings, but instead seems to belong more properly to those who question the world around them. Another example of this occurs late in the novel, after the English-born Mila has lived some time in the US:
“There are hundreds of channels on American TV and I flick through without paying much attention to anything on the screen. It is mostly commercials. I come to the high numbers, where a topless woman rubs her breasts and starts to ask if I want to get to know her better before I click past. I pause on a nature show where a quiet-voiced man admires a beautiful stag in a clearing, saying, Isn’t he a magnificent creature? and then raises his rifle and shoots him through the heart. The animal staggers and falls to his knees. I want to throw up.
A week ago America felt like the friendliest place in the world but I am starting to see darkness everywhere I look. The worst thing is, I don’t think it is America. I think it is me.” (Ch. 28, pp. 248-249 iBooks for Mac edition)
For someone such as myself who was born and raised in the US, the tawdry mixture of scantily-clad women and casual (hunting) violence may not cause as much consternation as it would for someone for whom such scenes are not typical late-night fare. Mila’s observation that it is not as much America but herself goes straight to the heart of the book: the seemingly quotidian elements of contemporary life, from new schoolmates to divorces to other changes in personal milieu, seem more profound and important as one enters into a more abstract and less concrete understanding of the lives and situations around them. Younger children may interpret shifts in relationships through concrete means: mommy and daddy aren’t in the same bed anymore and there are fewer hug times or toys for Christmas. A preteen or a teenager, however, might conceptualize things such as divorce or death through how each relates to that person’s understanding of the world and matters such as faith, justice, or a sense of fairness. In Picture Me Gone, Rosoff captures that shift in perspective vividly. Mila tries to puzzle out everything around her; it is all new to her. Sometimes this can be frightening, but other times it is exhilarating.
If there is a flaw to Picture Me Gone, it may be that Rosoff is sometimes too subtle. The events that spark reactions from Mila sometimes lack a sense of urgency that can drive readers to move quickly to the next chapter. The external forces that shape Mila’s development are sometimes not as clearly defined as they could have been and this serves to rob the novel of some of its power. Yet despite this, there are many interesting elements developing quietly under the narrative surface that by novel’s end they emerge to provide the story a fitting conclusion. Picture Me Gone may not contain a singularly powerful scene or element that will make an indelible impression upon the reader, but the cumulative effect of Mila’s piercing introspective thoughts is that of a slowly moving narrative river whose silty character deposits build a fertile delta upon which a careful and inquisitive reader can harvest a wealth of impressions. Worthy nominee for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.