When the vampires, or the soul-eating ghosts or the emissaries from the Domain of Light come to Earth, they go after the Indie Kids. Romantic, free-spirited loners with their own whimsical style and distinctive names, the Indie Kids listen to music that isn’t popular anymore, write poetry about their feelings and move through the crowd of faceless, boring normal people with the confidence that comes from knowing that they have a Destiny that sets them apart and makes them special. Mikey and his friends are not those kids.
This ninth offering from two-time Carnegie Winner Patrick Ness isn’t just an engaging coming-of-age story and a sharp parody of Young Adult Paranormal Romance, it’s a book with a mission – to dismantle the toxic and harmful myth of the Chosen One and the Magical Loner still enormously popular in YA fiction. What one might otherwise expect to be the main plot – in which thoroughly unique and special indie kid Satchel falls in love with the achingly handsome Prince of the Immortals and battles to exile his people back to their own dimension – is relegated entirely to brief chapter-headings which gleefully, and savagely, mock the pompous style of Twilight, Mortal Instruments and their less famous kin, with the main body of the text exploring Mikey and his friends’ much more mundane struggles. Though markedly different in content, in theme it could be seen as a Young Adult companion to China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, which does a similar thing for Narnia-style escapist fantasy.
Part of how Ness achieves his goal is through unflinching often brutal honesty – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s Disease and eating disorders are all stripped of the comforting lies and obfuscations they’re usually dressed up in, and Mikey’s experiments with his own sexuality are rendered in a matter-of-fact, unsensational tone which neither belittles nor objectifies them. Mikey himself – the attractive, broadly popular son of a Republican senator – is the last person who would ever be the star of one of these books, and his friends are likewise far too “normal” and vanilla for the indie kids to pay attention to, but by focussing on the details of their lives, Ness shows us that they are every bit as tragic, brave and interesting as the kid with the silly name who spends all day writing poetry. As well as deconstructing the Chosen One mythology, The Rest Of Us… is also a deft reflection on family, self-worth and the process by which teenagers give up enough of themselves to be adults.
Teenagers are a demanding audience, and of course none of this would mean anything if the story and characters weren’t strong enough – but Ness has never had problems in this area, and he isn’t starting now. Even if one chooses to ignore the subtext, The Rest Of Us… is still a skilfully handled, wise and entirely human coming-of-age story, and the Twilight-parody is sharply observed and often genuinely funny. Beyond that, however, it feels important – a bold, confident strike at one of the most dangerous lies we still tell teenagers, that your problems are more real, more interesting, more special than those of “normal” people, and that being important is some kind of reward for the struggles you’ve faced. Everyone’s special, Ness reminds us – which means that no-one is.