Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Patrick Ness currently bestrides the Young Adult literary scene like a Colossus, with other writers in terms of public reputation too often merely peeping out from the shadow of his huge legs. Twice winner of the Carnegie Medal, along with every other major prize in children’s fiction, he is always someone to look out for. His latest novel, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, does not disappoint; bold and well written, it provides plenty to think about, even though all the most urgent action is deliberately placed out of sight and off the page.
Fantasy adventure stories tend to concentrate on how super-villains are finally brought down, usually well against the odds and by doughty heroes and heroines. But there are few accounts about what is also going on at the same time among their supporting casts of characters. Ness sets out to rectify this, as if rewriting Hamlet with Horatio the main focus. In charge of the main narration, therefore, is the definitely unheroic 16-year-old Mikey, who has low confidence and an obsessive-compulsive cleaning disorder. In love with Henna, his beautiful fellow pupil at a small-town American High School, he also enjoys a complex friendship with Jared, another pupil, who is gay.
There is also a further, quite separate group of teenagers living in the same place who are collectively known as the “indie kids”. For reasons never explained only they have taken part in desperate recent battles against vampires and soul-eating ghosts. They now find themselves in the forefront of protecting the world from invasion by destructive Immortals. But news of this struggle only filters through via the briefest of summaries at the start of each chapter. Otherwise Mikey and his friends are left free to continue on their adolescent way, worrying more about establishing gender identity than the sinister developments and sudden deaths they sometimes hear about.
Although their various relationship travails are described well enough, the way those in this group remain relatively unconcerned about the violence also going on around them is less appealing. Normal life can, of course, more or less carry on even in the most dramatic circumstances, and Ness seems to be suggesting that successfully negotiating the ordinary ups and downs of teenage life also requires courage and at times even a measure of quiet heroism. But while his main characters are afforded the time and space to hone and develop their personal psychologies, the “indie kids” continue to fight for their very existence. He could be contrasting here the obsession with the self found in the West as opposed to a Third World refugee’s determination above all else simply to stay alive.
Yet by focusing only on a cast of affluent teenagers, who are happy to live in a political vacuum while primarily attempting to deal with their various emotional convolutions, he finally deprives this intriguing novel of any truly satisfying sense of ultimate purpose.
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