American author Gayle Forman is perhaps most famous for her novel If I Stay, which was recently turned into a film. In her newest novel, I Was Here, she again focuses upon the themes of life and death, and the fine line between the two. The blurb heralds the novel as ‘Gayle Forman at her finest, a taut, emotional, and ultimately redemptive story about redeeming the meaning of family and finding a way to move forward even in the face of unspeakable loss’.
The protagonist of I Was Here is eighteen-year-old Cody Reynolds, whose story begins when she learns of the suicide of her best friend, Meg Garcia. She has ingested a bottle of industrial strength cleaner whilst ‘alone in a motel room’, and Cody is struggling to work out how such an academically intelligent and loving person could have done such a thing. She is sent by Meg’s distraught parents to gather her belongings from her college room, and in trying to piece together the mystery of Meg’s death whilst she is there, Cody discovers a lot of secrets which had been hidden from her, some of them for years.
Meg, who was living away from home whilst studying at a prestigious college in Washington, ‘was incredibly organised about her suicide’, emailing copies of a suicide letter to her parents and the police, ‘along with another note informing them which motel she was at, which room she was on, what poison she had ingested, and how her body should be safely handled’. Perhaps most heartbreakingly of all, Meg also sent the emails on a time delay, ‘so that she would be long gone by the time we received them’.
I Was Here is a very easy story to get into. The whole is well plotted, and we learn more about the sometimes fraught relationship between sisterly Cody and Meg as the book goes on. Nothing is quite what it seems on the surface. Cody’s first person narrative voice, the majority of which has been written in the present tense, works really well, and gives a sense of immediacy to the novel. The mystery element runs throughout, and whilst it does become less compelling and more predictable towards the end, it still serves to keep the reader guessing.
I Was Here feels quite grown up in terms of its themes for what is essentially a young adult novel, and it certainly offers a thought-provoking read for adult readers. The novel’s characters – particularly Meg – are relatively complex constructions, and Forman continually surprises with their thoughts and actions. Whilst I Was Here is not as good a novel as If I Stay, it still offers an interesting plot, a voyage of personal discovery, and a host of memorable characters. The only thing which lets it down is the rather predictable ending.