This is the sixth of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS.
Adolescence is hard enough as it is, without cranky gods, vampires, hallowed destinies and whatnot to deal with. Fortunately, the Chosen Ones – the “indie kids” – have got that stuff covered. For Mikey and his friends, there’s just everything else to worry about: family, friendship, the future, love, jealousy, death, politics, work, growing up, endings, beginnings. Maybe zombie deer sometimes, too. The Rest of Us Just Live Here follows the lives of the background characters as the end of school life approaches. No one’s got to be a hero, they’ve just got to graduate. Hopefully before the school gets blown up.
First things first: Patrick Ness is a fantastic writer. The dialogue is sharp, the characters well-drawn, with a depth of light and shade. There are countless beautiful lines which ring with truth and humour, like this about the worst part of being young:
So many of your decisions aren’t yours; they’re made by other people. Sometimes they’re made badly by other people. Sometimes they’re made by other people who have no idea what the consequences of those decisions might be. The bastards.
This is the first of his YA novels I’ve read, and probably won’t be the last. You know you’re in safe hands with a writer like Ness, and this book is never less than a pleasure to read.
The cast is notably diverse, which is always welcome, and there are some intriguing dynamics drawn between them. The family relationships between Mikey, Melinda, and little sister Meredith are tender and moving, and the story doesn’t shy away from the complications that arise when you’re no longer a child, but your parents aren’t that great at being adults. Equally tender is the deep friendship between Mikey and Jared, though it doesn’t get interesting (i.e. CONFLICTFUL) until the very end of the book, which felt to me like a bit of a waste. The Rest of Us Just Live Here skilfully evokes the weight and the work of loving someone in pain: Jared notices Mikey’s OCD cycles and breaks him free, Mikey feeds his sister the lunch she can’t bring herself to eat, Melinda brushes her grandmother’s hair. It reminded me a little of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and much like that book, it reminds us that such labour is intimate, it is careful and caring, it is not easy but is willingly given. Love – primarily the bond of friendship and family, in this novel – is an act of grace.
Juxtaposed against this character-driven contemplation are the extracts at the beginning of each chapter, detailing what the “indie kids” are up to. The indie kids are called things like Finn, Finn, Finn, and Satchel, and their antics lampoon the tropes of the Chosen One story. They encounter immortal beings, they die tragically, they fall in love, they throw stones in the lake significantly. Their plotline takes place mostly in the background, though sometimes (inevitably, in the case of the larger explosions) crosses over into the lives of our not-so-heroic heroes. It’s interesting to see events unfold from the POV of the “collateral damage”, where the dramatic events of someone else’s story become mere nuisances, or at their worst, threats of a more random, impersonal kind to the rest of us, who just live here.
The book is in many ways about heroes, and like all stories, it’s also about stories. It hangs a lampshade on the idea of the Chosen One. Jared, 1/4 god himself, gives an excellent speech:
“Not everyone has to be the Chosen One. […] Most people just have to live their lives the best they can, doing the things that are great for them, having great friends, trying to make their lives better, loving people properly. All the while knowing that the world makes no sense but trying to find a way to be happy anyway.”
Perhaps your destiny is to survive, to be kind, to live and love. No mean feat.
These are big themes, and Ness engages them in a risky way, with the novel’s entire hook a sly metatextual joke. These main characters know they’re not the main characters.
It almost works, and there’s a lot to enjoy here, as I hope I’ve made clear in this review. But the mood whiplash is just too much, for me. I can’t reconcile the cartoonish indie kids – nor can I condone the term “indie kids” which I’ve not heard anyone say since I was a teen – with the quietly fascinating main cast. It’s just all a bit… meta. A little too knowing, whilst also trying to be so raw and open-hearted that almost a whole chapter is taken up with the main character’s conversation with his therapist. The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a juggling act, and I’m not convinced Ness completely pulls it off. Additionally, the whole concept is that these kids are the ones living less interesting lives. Although I didn’t find the book boring, and personally live for character-driven novels, it’s true that The Rest of Us Just Live Here is light on plot. It’s ironic that in skewering one YA convention, this novel enthusiastically embodies another: it’s as YA CONTEMPORARY!!! as any YA contemporary I’ve ever read. Which sounds like a nonsense. Maybe it is, but maybe if you’re a YA reader you know what I mean.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a bold, smart novel of wisdom and beauty, but flawed by a central gimmick that never quite pays off. Enjoy getting to know these unsung heroes, but don’t expect a bolt from the blue; life goes on, and we’re all the heroes of our own unremarkable stories.