Indie kids, OCD, and the last year of high school
Carnegie Medal shortlist 2016 – Review 3 of 8
What do the rest of us get up to while the Chosen One is busy saving the world? According to Patrick Ness, those of us not stepping into parallel universes, questing to find legendary swords, or battling evil are busy getting on with our lives and dealing with all the drama that goes with being a teenager in your final year of high school.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here sounds like it’s going to be a fun parody of the ‘Chosen One’ trope so popular in recent years, but it’s actually quite a serious read. Four friends – Mikey, his sister Melinda, and their friends, Mikey’s best friend Jared, and Henna – are in their final year of high school and dealing with everything that involves, from the quirks of various family members to studying for final exams to unrequited love.
All this happens against the backdrop of the invasion of the Immortals, the parallel ‘indie kid’ story that barely involves the foursome of friends but which, in another novel, might eclipse the entire focus of Patrick Ness’s book: real life.
All we have is each other
What I really liked about the book was the agency given to the teen characters: as well as being largely independent from their parents – jobs, cars, Mikey and Melinda practically raising their sister Meredith – they are also incredibly supportive of each other when the adults around them let them down, exemplified by the selective memories of everyone who is over 18 and strangely unable to recall the supernatural phenomena that have laid waste to the town over the years. The four friends have learned to rely on themselves essentially as adults. So much so, in fact, that by the end of the book I’d forgotten they were teenagers.
Mikey and Melinda know they cannot rely on their career-driven politician mother for anything resembling parental care, despite her assurances that her work is all for her family and not to feed her own ambition. (To give her credit, their mother did previously wake up to Melinda’s anorexia and Mikey’s OCD.) Meanwhile, their father is a hopeless alcoholic, reliably unreliable. It is Mikey and Melinda who take their sister to her favourite band’s concert, their mother only trying to muscle in when she sees a photo opportunity. In a touching moment, Meredith stands up to her mother, telling her that she has in effect missed the boat.
Henna’s religious parents are similarly blind to their daughter’s needs, insisting on taking her to the Central African Republic to proselytise rather than recognising the fact she is becoming an adult and what she needs from them is independence and help with closure over her brother Teemu (who disappeared during the invasion of beautiful vampires before the book begins).
Similarly, the indie kids, all named Finn and Satchel, are constantly let down by adults who betray them, having succumbed to the Immortals. So perhaps the stories are not so different after all.
Likeable – and vulnerable
The book is a pleasure to read because the characters are refreshingly personable. Despite Mikey’s neediness, he is a very likeable character, and together the foursome make up an extremely diverse and balanced group. Mikey himself is a brilliant example of a certain type of teenage boy (a type I can relate to): he has a need to be part of a group, and offers his support while never asking for help in return for fear of becoming a burden. He figures himself as the least needed or wanted and as a result isolates himself in a self-fulfilling prophecy, and falls out with his best friend.
The fact the only drama comes from Mikey’s insecurities – a mixture of jealousy, feeling left out, then horrifyingly aware of what he has let his insecurity do – only serves to remind the reader how well the group have been doing together up to that point.
I also liked that a mental health issue like OCD could feature in a book, YA or otherwise, without it being a book all about OCD or mental health; just a feature of a character, not a character in its own right.
Endings and beginnings
The emotional ending of the book is where the power of Ness’s story become clear. These are teenagers dealing with a variety of issues, nevermind the explosions or zombie deer caused by the Immortals. And they deal with these issues (mostly) together.
The mutual agreements the group reaches as this part of their lives draws to a close is touching because this is a story about endings and beginnings, about moving on, not about things falling apart. Being teenage means being caught in between child- and adulthood, and teenagers are often cast as both fearing and longing for the future; the lesson all teenagers learn as they become adults is that change has to be embraced and not feared, since it’s inevitable.
The Rest Of Us Just Live Here is a book that might be too subtle for some young readers, but will speak to many teenagers who have thought about life beyond their teenage years. It’s not light-hearted, but then neither is life. An excellent and compelling read.