Genre: YA contemporary Published: Simon Pulse, January 2016 My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
“If you knew the world was going to end, but you had the power to stop it, would you?”
“Because Jesse believed that life wasn’t worth living, and I refuse to prove him right.”
Life is bullshit This is the statement that Henry opens We are the Ants with, and in many ways I can’t blame him for thinking so.
Life has not been going easy on him. At school, he tries to navigate his way through severe bullying and abuse from classmates, whilst also exploring his feelings for a new boy in school Diego. At home, things aren’t much easier. His brother has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, and has no idea how to deal with the prospect of being a dad. His grandma is suffering from the onset of dementia, and his overworked and addict mother just needs him to “be okay” to keep herself from breaking. Throughout this all his life is still being heavily affected by the grief he feels over his ex-boyfriends recent suicide. It’s safe to say: Henry is not okay.
It was this “alien-plot-line-part” of the description that put me off the book for so long. I realize this is a very personal opinion, but I’m generally not interested in sci-fi about anthropomorphic aliens visiting earth. We are the Ants however, is nothing like that, so if like me you’re discouraged by this plotline: don’t be. Likewise, if you’re just interested in a book about aliens, this may not be the one for you. It’s very much a heavy YA-contemporary novel, with a very minor supernatural plotline. In my opinion it’s so minor that it technically could have been scrapped in editing, without changing the core of the novel too much.
From this perspective, We are the Ants is a wonderful book. It’s main two selling points, for me were the writing style and the portrayal of the characters and their emotions.
The writing style could be a hit or miss for some: Henry is very cynical and nihilistic view of the world, that sometimes comes across as crude. I personally loved his dark jokes, and thought they did a great job of lifting the mood of this novel, but I can very well see how they may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
However, even if you don’t enjoy our narrators tone at times, I think most people will be able to enjoy the poignancy and wisdom in some of the writing. This novel is one of the most quotable I’ve read this year, and has depleted my sticky-tabs-collection significantly.
The writing style perfectly supports the characters, especially our teenage ones. Many adult authors who write about teenagers, seem to either underestimate or overestimate them. Hutchinson strikes the perfect balance here: he includes the full complexity of Henry’s grief and feelings for his ex-boyfriend, and the fear of falling in love again with Diego that this brings with it. His characters deal with the same emotional impact this would have on an adult.
However, he also recognizes the sense of melodrama that teenagers can have. How a failed math-test or making an awkward remark in front of the class can seem like the end of the world.
It’s that balance between very major events, and minor ones that balances the book out and makes it very representative of themes teenagers can deal with.
At a certain point there is a little lag in the story’s pacing (about 1/3 to halfway through). Here Henry’s internal monologue can be repetitive and even whiney at times. Whilst this is understandable, considering the circumstances he’s in, it’s not a joy to read. A second aspect about hit internal thought that annoyed me a little was his frequent mention of a certain male body-part. I was never a teenage boy myself, but seriously: do you guys really think about your penis every 5 minutes…? That has to be annoying… Last (pretty minor) piece of criticism: Dear Mr. Hutchinson and editor, please don’t ever use google translate as a reliable source of translation again. There are a few German sentences in there, which just aren’t correct ("Ich hab dich so sehr, Papa verpasst", seriously…?!?). It may seem like a minor mistake but it’s so avoidable that really can’t accept this in a traditionally published novel.
Nitpicks aside: I think this is a great novel for both teenagers, as well as adults. If you are okay with the heavier themes mentioned in my review*, this is definitely a recommend from me!
"Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying..." - Arthur C Clarke
*For a contentwarninglist, see the spoilersection below my Goodreads review