NOT everyone can be the “Chosen One”. Not everyone wants to be, either. Two-time Carnegie Medal-winning writer Patrick Ness’s new book The Rest of Us Just Live Here focuses on those teenagers who aren’t special — except that they are, in their own ways. In a small American town that seems to experience a great many strange supernatural occurrences, Ness’s chosen characters aren’t the ones involved in saving the world before bedtime, but they aren’t the ones dying either. They’re just trying to live their lives as best they can, while the indie kids are constantly fighting something frightening and strange — but then they always are. They aren’t “dying beautifully of cancer” right now, but there are strange blue lights in the woods, “zombie deer … cops with murder in their eyes … and actual dead people” to contend with.
The narrative around the indie kids is clear, but briefly doled out in a little summary at the start of each chapter. This is enough of a framework for a reader to know what the larger picture is, a picture that may well be familiar to many Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans. The unexplained shafts of magical blue light in the woods, a mysterious glowing girl, a fissure that could swallow the entire high school and a possibly impending localised apocalypse. Everyone else who isn’t involved is trying to get by, hoping that the high school isn’t destroyed before prom. Of course, the stories of the Chosen Ones affect the stories of the teenagers Ness is concerned with, the ones who may not be fighting Immortals but are fighting demons of their own, possibly ones harder to vanquish.
“Not everyone has to be the Chosen One”, points out one of the teens who isn’t. “Not everyone has to be the guy who saves the world. 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”. This is what The Rest of Us Just Live Here is truly about — surviving life, coming of age in a world that’s constantly mad, traumatic and genuinely on the verge of a sudden apocalypse. Ness is great at reminding us that being a teenager is hard but also that it’s something one can survive.
Mikey, his sister Mel and their friends Jared and Henna, are each trying hard to be happy. Mikey has an anxiety disorder. Mel has battled anorexia and is still working on staying afloat. Their father is an alcoholic. Their mother is standing for office and though she isn’t insensitive to their needs (she’s very supportive of Mikey when he needs to go back into therapy and needs medications, she’s clearly done that for Mel in the past too), she is very busy herself. Mikey is in love with his best friend Henna but hasn’t yet been able to tell her. Henna is being dragged away by her parents for the summer to help in African villages. Mikey’s other best friend Jared who is “three-quarters Jewish, one-quarter god” (of cats) seems to be growing distant from him and there’s a new kid in town called Nathan, who Mikey feels somewhat threatened by. What’s this new kid doing here anyway, transferring to a small town high school just a couple of months before graduation? What do they know about him? Is he involved with what’s going on with the indie kids, or is he simply a threat much closer to home?
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a hugely entertaining, well-written book. That said, it’s also a brave book, one that tackles a great many important concerns and issues about mental illness, family, friendship, sexuality and growing up without ever being pedantic, forceful or message-driven. While Mikey and his friends are not fighting zombies or vampires or trying to seal a hell mouth, they’re dealing with recovering from anorexia or obsessive compulsive disorder or a parent’s alcoholism, a grandparent’s Alzheimer’s or unrequited love.
“The mistake of every adult, though,” explains Mikey, “is to think darkness and hardship aren’t important to young people because we’ll grow out of it. Who cares if we will? Life is happening to us now, just as it’s happening to you.” Ness makes it clear that every person’s experiences are unique and important, and that most teenagers are struggling to define themselves, to find themselves. It’s a rare writer who can create such realistic, sympathetic teen characters while allowing them to grow, have agency and find their way. “I’m choosing my own story,” determines Mikey, “Because if you can’t do that, you might as well just give up”. Representational of the real world yet unique, the cast of The Rest of Us Just Live Here all choose their own adventures regardless of whatever impending doom is upon them.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a coming-of-age novel in the vein of Buffy meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s smart and sensitive, and at once irreverent and earnest. It’s a risky narrative too; one that parodies so many beloved Young Adult urban fantasies and paranormal romances, but it works, partly because the main characters never suspend their disbelief in the supernatural events around and of course because Ness is just very good at what he does.
His characters are always empathetic and as complicated and as ‘real’ as the world he creates and though they may not have “capital D destinies” in the scheme of the supernatural framework that surrounds their own stories, their journeys are just as — if not more — important. They “yearn the same, wish the same … [they’re] just as brave and false and loyal and wrong and right as anyone else”. The Rest of Us Just Live Here tells us that perhaps we can’t all save the world, but maybe we can save ourselves and each other occasionally.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here
By Patrick Ness
Walker Books, UK