“In gaining your freedom to be you have lost your choice of being anything else” (184).
So says the unnamed narrator of British author Aidan Chambers’ thoughtful novel, Dying To Know You. And he should know, for although his exact age is never given, he is (in a bold break from young adult novel convention) an old man. The “freedom to be” he gained long ago was to be a writer, to spend his life with stories, words, and books. And also with his wife, Jane, whose recent death has left him bereft, unable to write again. He doesn’t know how to be anything else than a husband to Jane and a writer, and now he is neither.
The recipient of our narrator’s advice is Karl, eighteen-year-old plumber’s apprentice, rugby enthusiast, and currently applying for the position of Fiorella’s boyfriend. And it feels like a job application—Fiorella has demanded that Karl answer a list of questions about himself, life, and love. Answer in “full-dress English.” In other words, spelling, punctuation, grammar—all these matter. This application is doubly difficult for Karl; not only is he your typical “guy’s guy” who feels more comfortable expressing himself on the rugby pitch or fishing in the river, he also suffers from dyslexia. How can he possibly express himself well enough to win over the posh Fiorella?
This is where our narrator comes in. Karl knows Fiorella is a fan of his novels, so Karl approaches the narrator with a request to be his translator, as it were. Karl will give his answers, and our narrator will turn them into “full-dress English.” Our narrator agrees because he shares two things with Karl: his own struggle with dyslexia, and a sense that Karl too is a lost soul, though it is only much later in the novel that we discover why Karl also feels like he has lost his choice of ‘being anything else.”
You may be thinking Cyrano, but after the similar setup, Chambers moves the Karl/Fiorella romance to the side and focuses on the growing friendship between an old man and a young man, each looking to (re)establish his identity. Dying To Know You is a conversational novel: most of it consists of discussions, spoken or written. Because of this, the book reads quickly, but the wise narrative voice provides a more reflective sense of identity than we usually find in young adult novels. Dying To Know You provides a rare look into an intergenerational friendship from the older man’s perspective, and, in Karl, a compelling representative of the muted frustration so many young men feel.