Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Books – The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness’s new novel, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, came out a few weeks ago. It takes the standard young adult high-school-meets-supernatural-adventure and turns it on its head. In this particular American high school, the Immortals are descending from above looking for bodies to inhabit, and indie kids are dying left, right and centre. But this isn’t a book about the “chosen ones”. Instead, our narrator is Mikey, a fairly ordinary teenage boy. And despite having a best friend who is worshipped by cats and occasionally getting caught up in stampedes of supernatural deer, his main worries in life are how to cope with his OCD, how to help his sister through anorexia, and how to find a way to ask out his long-term crush Henna. It’s like the John Green novel going on in the background of Twilight. Which is a pretty cool idea.

The premise is just brilliant. In so many YA fantasy books, there are characters at the side-lines who we never hear from. For every muggle-born wizard there’s a sibling or friend who didn’t get their Hogwarts letter, and this book is basically about them: the teenagers in the background of the supernatural, who sometimes get caught in the crossfire as they attempt to carry on with their lives. The book is structured cleverly. At the beginning of each chapter, we get a quick summary of what’s happened in what the other story – the supernatural plot going on in the background. In ‘Chapter The First, in which the Messenger of the Immortals arrives…’, what we read is instead a long conversation about love, stomachs, and schoolwork, broken off when one of the indie kids (ie, the ones who do get caught up in the magical stuff) runs through their group, followed by a weird glowing light.

I enjoy the casual treatment of the supernatural in this book. The central characters simply take it for granted that every now and then one of the indie kids will get caught up in something that’ll blow up the high school, that vampires are real, that one of your best friends might happen to be descended from a god of cats. In this novel, the extraordinary becomes almost ordinary. This is not only very cleverly done, but adds some wonderful humour to the book. I love that when indie kid Finn is chased by a shining light through the woods, Mikey and his friends simply ‘exchange wtf glances.’

But this book isn’t just about ordinary teenagers getting caught in the side-lines of supernatural events. What I found especially interesting in The Rest of Us Just Live Here is the way Patrick Ness explores issues of mental health. Mikey’s elder sister Mel is recovering from anorexia, and their father is an alcoholic. Mikey himself suffers from Obsession Compulsive Disorder. I was so impressed by how tactfully and subtly Ness deals with these subjects; his exploration of these issues is never clumsy but always sincere and effective. Moreover, these issues fitted very well with the premise of the book: a lot of teenagers and young adults suffer from mental health issues, but it’s another thing that often gets left out of the fantasy YA genre. The “chosen ones” never get panic attacks at big moments or get ‘stuck in loops’ like Mikey does. I feel like even if you’re not interested in the rest of the book, everybody in the world ought to read chapter 16, in which Mikey visits and talks to a psychiatrist. It is one of the best pieces of writing about mental health that I’ve read.

I love Ness’s writing. When previously reading his book A Monster Calls I was impressed by his ability to tackle serious and complex issues while retaining humour and strong realistic characters. I felt the same  about The Rest of Us Just Live Here. The book is told in first person present tense (one of my favourite perspectives) and is both conversational and reflective in tone. Mikey is at times an unreliable narrator, so caught up in his own problems that he isn’t quite aware of those around him; but this really worked. The tone reminded me quite a lot of John Green’s Paper Towns, and I feel like people who enjoyed that book would also enjoy The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Mikey sometimes addresses the reader directly, which I quite like. He invites us into his world, a world where the supernatural is commonplace, where we have “indie kids” at our schools too.

The characterisation is as strong as the premise. Mikey and his sister, and their relationship, is very well developed, and I just love Jared. Henna is interesting, and Meredith hilarious. Mikey’s parents also intrigued me. The complex presentation of Mikey’s mother, torn as she is between her family and her political ambitions, was done very well. I liked that no one in this book is completely good or bad (another trope, perhaps, of books featuring a “chosen one”). Mikey isn’t always that nice. His mum isn’t always completely selfish. Jared isn’t always the perfect friend, and Nathan isn’t always a conveniently nasty rival.

The book blends realism and the supernatural in a powerful and poignant way. I love the central premise, and characters and themes Ness brings out beyond it come together to form an interesting, engaging and intelligent book. This is one of the most thought-provoking young adult novels I’ve read.

Greatest strength: Both the strength of the central premise, and the way Patrick Ness deals with issues of mental health.

Greatest weakness: Sometimes the background supernatural plotline does feel a little bit silly, but I wonder if that’s actually the point; and perhaps that’s what happens when you summarise a complex fantasy plot in just a few lines.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘The indie kids, huh? You’ve got them in your school too? … Nice enough, never mean, but always the ones who end up being the Chosen One when the vampires come calling or when the alien queen needs the Source of All Light or something. They’re too cool to ever do anything like go to prom… They’ve always got some story going on that they’re heroes of. The rest of us just have to live here, hovering around the edges, left out of it all, for the most part.
Having said that, the indie kids do die a lot. Which must suck.’

Next week: How to Be Both, Ali Smith

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