Henry Denton has spent years being periodically abducted by aliens. Then the aliens give him an ultimatum: The world will end in 144 days, and all Henry has to do to stop it is push a big red button.
Only he isn’t sure he wants to.
We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson was my last read of 2017, and honestly? I can’t think of a better way to end the year. Henry was a highly engaging and candid first person narrator, who I actually saw a lot of myself in despite the fact we had next to nothing in common on paper. Getting a look inside his head was a delight–even though it rarely, rarely felt like that. This book is dark, and sad, and very lonely at times, but do not let that put you off. I for one think there is far too much wishy-washy, does-he-love-me, over-dramatisation of inane problems and the plague that is insta-love in YA lit, and this book is pretty much the antithesis of that.
At first, the ultimatum Henry is given seems almost stupid, or too easy: if you had the chance to save the world from impending doom then surely you would, wouldn’t you? The point of this book is to show you that it simply isn’t as clear cut as that. In some ways this book is a bit of an exposé on the world as a whole; this planet and the people on it are capable of terrible, terrible things. We are constantly hurting each other in a million little–and not so little–ways.
Case in point: Henry’s life isn’t so great. His mother is a struggling waitress who has all but given up on keeping their family together. His brother is unemployed and and soon to be a father. His grandmother is losing her battle with Alzheimer’s, and perhaps worst of all, Henry is still coming to terms with his boyfriend Jesse’s suicide last year.
So in that respect it is understandable why he isn’t all too enamored with this world, or too intent on saving it. But this book is also about grief and the tricky part of grief where you actually start to pull through it. As our Lord and Savior Brendon Urie of P!ATD sings in Hallelujah:
“Then the time for being sad is over
And you miss ’em like you miss no other
And being blue is better than being over it”
Sometimes being sad and existing in that perpetual state of sadness is easier than moving on. I think that for a large part of the novel, that it what Henry feels, and it is only when he starts to weigh up (and actively participate in) the world around him that he sees there are any other options for the way he is to live (or not live) his life than grief.
The way this book looks at the intricacies of family and how we blame each other for things that are ultimately out of our control hits very close to home, and is startling in it’s accuracy.
But Henry is a scientist first, and facing the question thoroughly and logically, he begins to look for pros and cons: in the bully who is his perpetual one-night stand, in the best friend who betrayed him, in the brilliant and mysterious boy who walked into the wrong class. Weighing the pain and the joy that surrounds him, Henry is left with the ultimate choice: push the button and save the planet and everyone on it…or let the world—and his pain—be destroyed forever.
One of the things I loved most about this book though, was the narrative voice. Henry’s voice is hilarious yet cynical and so, so real. It is also very consistent, and always in character, something which I feel many YA authors struggle to convey. No doubt this book deals with some very heavy themes; suicide, Alzheimer’s, bullying and existentialism to name but a few, but it does so in a poignant and intelligent way, while still maintaining an accessible and original feel.
There is also a whole host of characters to fall in love with. The new kid Diego will steal your heart and break it. Both Audrey and Henry’s older brother Charlie (as well as his girlfriend Zooey) will wind up deep within your affections without any warning whatsoever. We Are the Ants holds up a crystal clear magnifying glass to humanity and doesn’t flinch at what it finds – even if I did.
To put it simply; I loved this book. I definitely thought it was tragic at times, but also quietly hopeful, and determined, and so thoughtful it genuinely made me catch my breath. It’s also the kind of book that lends itself to re-reading, which I will be doing… time and time (and time) again.
I will also definitely be grabbing The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley (another one of Shaun David Hutchinson’s books) the next time I’m in Waterstone’s!
recommended for: fans of i’ll give you the sun, anyone prone to serious introspection and those who err on the side caution when it comes to soft sci-fi or YA lit: this book more than any has the potential to change your mind.
let me know what you all thought,
trigger warnings: suicide, self harm mentions, existentialism/nihilism, very bad bullying & physical assault, attempted rape.