What if you’re not the one who’s so often the hero in YA fiction; who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death? What if you were like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again. Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life. Even if your best friend might just be the God of mountain lions…
It felt like I was waiting for something to happen. Which has to be the worst part of being young. So many of your decisions aren’t yours; they’re made by other people. Sometimes they’re made badly by other people. Sometimes they’re made by other people who have no idea what the consequences of those decisions might be. The bastards.
While I wasn’t 100% connected to/enthralled with the story itself, I think this book is super important for a number of reasons. [Also, warning: this review gets quite personal, so if you’re not in the mood for my mental issues….]
Firstly, the depiction of mental illness, specifically the positive depiction of therapy and meds. I’ve seen a lot of books whereby the therapy component is a complete joke, and meds are something portrayed in a negative light. Hell, if I think to my own experiences right now, I’ve put off going to my psychiatrist even though my anxiety levels are through the roof (to the point of debilitating stomach pain) because I don’t want my meds increased. And why? A sense of shame, mostly, a sense of failure – that I wasn’t strong enough to do it myself. And Ness completely destroys this notion, and it made me hurt inside, because it was so true and so necessary and what I, and a lot of people, need to hear.
“For now, as a start, I’d like to put you on some medication. Why are you making that face?”
“Medication…is a failure?”
“The biggest one. Like I’m so broken, I need medical help.”
“Cancer patients don’t call chemotherapy a failure. Diabetics don’t call insulin a failure.”
“This is different and you know it.”
“I don’t know it. Why is it different?”
“Because it means I’m crazy. Crazy is different.”
“Michael, do you think cancer is a moral failing?”
“What kind of cancer?”
“Don’t play. You know what I mean. Do you think a woman who gets ovarian cancer is morally responsible for it?”
Secondly, I particularly admired the depiction of OCD in the novel, which afflicts our main character. We’re all guilty of misusing mental health terms – have a bad day and say “I’m so depressed”; straighten out your desk and say “Haha, I’m so OCD” – which I think tends to trivialize the nature of these illnesses. OCD is not some cutesey organizing personality trait. It can range from mild obsessive tendencies to the horrific – a complete inability to get anything done or participate in life because of the rituals that need to be completed.
I had incredibly bad OCD when I was around 10/11 – of course, I didn’t know what it was then – only later I was able to put a label on it. I think one of the issues was that my brain at that stage took everything very literally, so that my compulsive handwashing with special anti-bacterial soap was because I might get AIDS, which we’d just learnt about in school. [I know, I know.] Apart from the handwashing, my OCD manifested in continual switching on and off of lightbulbs and taps, and locking/unlocking doors, picking up and putting the phone back down on the hook, checking the oven and electrical switches, etc – I would do it repeatedly for long periods of time – basically, had to keep switching things back on to make sure they’d been off in the first place. I had to listen to the songs on my CDs in a certain numerical order, and if I screwed it up, I’d have to start all over again. I had to monitor my speech, to make sure I got everything absolutely accurate else I’d have told a lie and God would strike me down. Yup, really. The worst was probably my obsession with making sure I took the same path out a building that I took in – so I’d spend my break times at school untracking my steps. Of course, this presented a problem of epic proportions when it came to places that had separate entrances and exits.
The worst part is that you know it’s entirely irrational, and that nothing will happen if you don’t do the rituals, but you are completely paralysed in trying to tell that to the rest of your brain. I never got help for my OCD – I’m not sure if my parents just didn’t notice or preferred to ignore it, thinking I would grow out of it. My mother was against therapy and medication anyway, so it wouldn’t have helped if they had. I remember getting shouted at that I was going to drive myself bad – there’d been a stage of constant crying because of my fear of what might happen – but it’s not like that was helpful. It got to the point where I was utterly exhausted, and I knew that I couldn’t go on like this. And because there were no helpful options available to me, I did the next best thing, which was “FUCK THIS. The world can explode. God can strike me down. I NO LONGER CARE.” I would not recommend this fatalistic mindset, btw. And that was how I ‘cured’ my OCD, which is to say I think I transitioned into depression instead. Fun times. I still catch myself slipping into little rituals from time to time, but I’ve got a grip on it now.
Anyway, long tale of woe in appreciation of how Ness dealt with the topic. He captured the fear and anxiety and inner loathing at how stupid it seems perfectly.
I know how crazy this is. I know the feeling that I haven’t washed my face ‘right’ makes no sense. But like I said, knowing doesn’t make it better. It makes it so much worse. How can I explain it? If you don’t know, maybe I can’t, but as I was my face yet again, I hate myself so much I want to stick a knife in my heart.
On a lighter note, other aspects of the novel I enjoyed included his hilarious send up of the clichés of dystopian novels where the chosen ones have to save the world. There are essentially two story lines running concurrently – one telling the tale (albeit in short paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter) about the chosen kids who have to battle the evil to save the town, and the other is the main storyline, about a group of teens approaching graduation and all dealing with their very many issues.
The indie kids, huh? You’ve got them at your school, too. That group with the cool-geek haircuts and the thrift shop clothes and names from the fifties. Nice enough, never mean, but always the ones who end up being the Chosen One when the vampires come calling or when the alien queen needs the Source of All Light or something. They’re too cool to ever, ever do anything like go to prom or listen to music other than jazz while reading poetry. They’ve always got some story going on that they’re heroes of. The rest of us just have to live here, hovering around the edges, left out of it all, for the most part.
I liked the message that the small things you do are also extraordinary. You may not be the hero or MC, but your ordinary life and its goings on are just as significance. I think we forget that a lot of the time.
Not everyone has to be a Chosen One. 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 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 more than a mental issue book, although that does play a huge part. It’s about complicated family settings and inner demons and realizing that what you wanted all along might not actually be the right fit for you. It’s about sibling solidarity, and the fears that come with graduation, and friendships that keep you afloat.
“You can’t choose not to feel,” Henna says.
“But you can choose how to act.”
ARC received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.