Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I read We Are the Ants in a single day, because despite its prodigious size and the demands on my time, I really enjoyed its narrative. Shaun David Hutchinson’s writing style is slick and very readable. There’s a lot in this novel I enjoyed, and only a little bit I didn’t like. But in order to really dig into that, I have to spoil some of the ending for you. You have been warned.
Trigger warnings in this book for suicide and suicide ideation, bullying, and abuse.
Henry Denton is in high school. Henry Denton is abducted irregularly by aliens he calls the “sluggers”, for their slug-like appearance, who eventually reveal to him that he can avert the catastrophic end of all human life on Earth simply by pushing a button. He has 144 days to make up his mind. Much of his experience thus far has him leaning on the “don’t press” side of the equation. This is the story of those 144 days, the boy he meets who might change Henry’s mind, and the bullying and trauma that might not.
I’m going to start with the ending, because hey, if I’m flagging this review for spoilers, I might as well go big or go home. I love the ending. I think it’s a perfect ending for this book.
My number 1 fear all throughout reading We Are the Ants was that Hutchinson’s ending would disappoint. I just wasn’t sure how he could satisfy me either way: obviously Henry had to push the button, right? Or if he didn’t, well then, what an unsatisfactory and nihilistic book this would be. In retrospect, the postmodernist twist of not letting Henry make the choice, of making Henry and the reader doubt whether the sluggers even existed, of never reaching Day Zero and never revealing, therefore, whether or not the world actually ends … I mean, sure, maybe it was obvious to everyone else who reads this. But it sneaked up on me, and it just works so well with the rest of the book.
The last act of the book feels so careful to me. It’s as if Hutchinson wants to give Henry a happy ending but doesn’t want to obviate the pain and suffering of the first two acts; he doesn’t want to oversimplify or just give younger readers the tired truism that “it gets better”. So what we see instead are a series of overlapping vignettes that each contain a mixture of hope and discord. Zooey’s miscarriage, for instance, is so shattering. Yet we see her and Charlie and the rest of the family start off on the path moving forward. Nana’s gradual but inexorable succumbing to Alzheimer’s is heartbreaking, yet we see her family rally in an attempt to provide her with as much dignity as she can snatch in the years she has left. The scene in her room in the nursing home, with all the photos and journal entries, is so kind and amazing that I teared up. Henry’s mom finally takes the step of quitting her waitress job and finally taking a job as a chef—and it won’t magically fix their family overnight, but it’s a step in the right direction.
This is the message of We Are the Ants, and it’s a good one: life is a mixture of good things and bad things and in-between things. Anyone who tells you that you can achieve a life of only good things is lying. But we can work, with each other, to try to make the good outweigh the bad.
I’m not as certain how I feel about the beginning of the novel. I don’t really like Henry’s voice at the beginning. But I’m not a gay teenage boy in South Florida, either, so part of that might just be how I relate (or don’t relate) to him as a character. I have a very upbeat, mellow, and optimistic outlook on the world, so it’s hard for me to get into Henry’s head-space. Similarly, I don’t have enough experience to judge whether Hutchinson’s depiction of people trying to move on from a close friend’s suicide is done well or not. I like the gradual and non-linear way in which Henry and Audrey rekindle their friendship. I like the gradual and non-linear way in which Henry and Diego start a relationship, how neither is really sure if it’s friendship or romance or whatever.
Indeed, We Are the Ants is probably most notable because it excels at embracing the messiness of life. In refusing to simplify his narrative for the sake of YA or the sake of a happy ending, Hutchinson’s writing achieves a strength and nobility that is moving and highly effective. I don’t quite love it, but I still recommend it. I think there are teens out there who could find solace and rescue in this book; and there are also adults out there for whom this book might reveal or remind of a world they have since left behind.