The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness - review

‘Ness seems to be one of the few contemporary YA authors who really ‘gets’ being a 21st century Western teenager, and crucially accepts it without judgement’

Devastatingly sad, laugh-out- loud funny and effortlessly clever – but this is a Patrick Ness novel, so you know that, right? What’s new, then?

It will certainly be harder to read any blockbuster YA novel (especially if it’s soon to be “a major film”) in the same way again after completing The Rest of Us Just Live Here. The premise is that, in every school around the world, there are “indie kids” who would normally be the protagonists of this sort of story: they fall in love with sexy, tragic vampires; or get told they are the Chosen One; periodically, they blow up the school. Then there are the eponymous ‘rest of us’: normal teenagers worried about nothing more or less than whatever teachers are supposed to worry about – sex, exams… and, presumably, the other kids blowing up the school.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is narrated by Mike, an eighteen year old living in the remote suburbs of a far-flung backwater somewhere in the US, and centres on his group of four friends: Jared, Mike’s best friend; Mel, his older sister; and Henna, Mel’s best friend and someone whom Mike has a massive – and positively unrequited – crush on.

Photograph: Guardian Bookshop

The story opens with graduation prom just three weeks away, the four friends revising for their finals, and Mike wrestling with his complex and ambiguous feelings for Henna (and Jared). Mike has a lot more on his plate than most people, as we swiftly learn: his mum is planning to run for state governor – against Jared’s likeable dad. Mike’s dad is an alcoholic; Mel is anorexic and almost died when the illness was at its worst. Mike himself suffers from crippling anxiety and OCD.

I was instantly drawn to Mike. I loved his wry sense of humour (he says some of his neighbours find Fox News a bit “too liberal”) and fierce sense of protection for both Melinda and his younger sister, Meredith. His difficult relationship with a mother who aspires to high office felt honest and subtle; I found his anxiety that he is the least wanted member of his friendship group sympathetic and universally relatable.

One of the wonders of Patrick Ness’s tight writing is that none of the disparate strands of the story felt superfluous, in the sense that nothing in real life is ever superfluous – they are simply things which happen. This is not an ‘issues’ book, although the gritty, emotionally raw descriptions of Mike finding himself trapped in ‘loops’ in which he washes his hands until he bleeds, and worrying that one day the only way to escape would be to kill himself, certainly put paid to the idea that OCD is a gentle, quirky fetish for neatness (I’m sure you know plenty of people like this). The tender moments with his gran are a pertinent reminder that Alzheimer’s doesn’t just extinguish memories but can also submerge your sense of self and capacity of independence. These aspects of the novel, woven so deftly into the story, drive home the little-discussed fact that mental illness affects all of our lives, whether directly or at a remove.

Patrick Ness also seems to be one of the few contemporary YA authors who really ‘gets’ being a 21st century Western teenager, and crucially accepts it without judgement. Mike mentions openly and without fanfare that he watches porn online. With a recent poll in the UK suggesting that only 48% of teenagers consider themselves fully heterosexual (and 8% homosexual), it’s refreshing to read that, while Mike is pretty sure he likes girls, he has “messed” around with his gay best friend a couple of times in the past. (Although Ness’s inner prude does occasionally surface; why have Mike say “intimate conversation with myself” rather than “masturbate” or even just “wank”?!)

I also love how no character in this novel is ever just a plot device or label; even the tattooist has complex opinions and interesting insights.

Meanwhile, Ness deftly relegates the (latest) end of the world drama to the sideline of the action; numerous ‘indie kids’ mysteriously disappear or turn up, dead; unexplained blue lights flare up; there are zombie police officers, and deer. Only the reader gets a full idea of what is going on in both words, courtesy of a brief, italicised sketch of what has befallen the indie kids at the start of each chapter – which form the most groan worthy, cliché-riddled story imaginable (and also feature a ridiculous number of characters called Finn). Fans of The Fault in our Stars or The Twilight series had better be ready for some good-natured swipes, in particular. While this is funny, I later wondered whether Patrick Ness wasn’t making a gentle point about the ubiquity of violence in modern visual culture, the way popular entertainment bleeds into imagery of shattered cities in Syria or Yemen (witness the destruction wrought on Cairo in the latest X-Men film).

At the end there are no neat resolutions: many plot strands simply peter out or are left hanging unsatisfactorily. Almost everything is still uncertain.

Still, if you’ve ever got to the end of a superhero movie and wondered what happened to the people whose communities and neighbourhoods became a smouldering mass of rubble while Hercules received uncritical praise – and, frankly, if this question had never occurred to you – I heartily recommend you don’t let this work of modest genius (described on the page, it sounds ridiculous, yet all the elements somehow mesh and just work), pass you by.

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