No one notices Claire. All of her classmates write the same meaningless platitudes in her yearbook. She can’t get the attention of salespeople. When she was little, her parents kept a note taped to the back door with her name written on it to remind them that they had a daughter; they kept forgetting her at the park. With this tragic portrait that perhaps reminds readers of their worst days of high school, Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ NOBODY begins.
"This age-old tale of oppressed youth taking on forces that seek to crush them reveals itself in visceral action sequences and a scene or two of grisly violence."
Friendless, and without any concept of how it feels not to be friendless, Claire imagines scenarios in which she matters. She calls them Situations. Maybe she rescues someone in a daring adventure, and the person thanks her. Maybe she gets hit by a car, and a handsome stranger grabs her by the shoulders, shakes her, and asks what the hell she was doing; his concern is always fierce and desperate in her Situations. More than anything, she wants to imagine how strange and lovely it would be for someone to care about her.
One day, while changing clothes in her bedroom, she gets the feeling that someone is watching her. When she pulls back the curtains, she sees a young man standing outside of her window, pointing a gun at her. They make eye contact. It’s like nothing she’s ever felt. Needless to say, he doesn’t shoot her. He feels the same thing. Nix, this beautiful boy with dark hair and blue eyes, has also spent his life being ignored. But in his case, a shrouded institution ominously known as the Society used his inborn inconspicuousness to its advantage. The Society trained him as an assassin.
Like Claire, Nix is a Nobody. Born missing some indefinable energy that allows other people to care about them, Nobodies are rare. When two Nobodies meet, they may command powers that the Society cannot contain.
This age-old tale of oppressed youth taking on forces that seek to crush them reveals itself in visceral action sequences and a scene or two of grisly violence. Hand bones crunch under the stomp of an unforgiving boot. Eyeballs are slashed to blindness. Bodies are flayed. Burned skin makes a person look as though he has been turned inside out. Many an action sequence comes to a satisfying close based on a new trick of the established “magic” mechanisms or the sudden interference of an unexpected character.
Within this action-packed sci fi/fantasy story of adventure and conspiracy, there is also a love story. Unfolded in all of the breathless passion that we have come to expect in certain teen novels, this romance stands out from others in one critical way: it’s believable. Although it technically does fall under the category of “instant love,” since Claire and Nix feel an immediate draw toward one another, the author accounts for that connection in her mythos. Both are experiencing for the first time what it feels like to be seen, and that, quite logically, awakens primal feelings in both of them. As they begin to enact with each other their fantasies of having a human relationship, they form a bond based on trust, loyalty and fierce protection of one another. This is exactly what both of them have always craved. Their love story will make sense to any outsider who has ever fallen in love with another outsider, only to find that the other outsider, miraculously, returns her feelings. Although the language describing their every touch tends toward the overblown, a reader has to forgive the author. For these characters, even the slightest point of contact, physical or emotional, feels monumental. Anyone who has been made to feel like less of a freak in the companionship of a similarly peculiar person will recognize the urgency of the interactions between Claire and Nix.
On top of coping with a first love that neither expected ever to experience, the Nobodies are attempting to come to terms with their own inborn deficiency. Gone is the possibility that they could have lived happy lives full of friends and family if only they had tried harder. They are lacking the ineffable genetic ingredient that allows them to be loved by Normals. This brings Claire both a sense of relief and a sense of powerlessness. She marvels at the folly of Normals who pass each other every day without saying hello. Normals have the ability to make connections, and yet they usually neglect to use it. This meditation on the often insular quality of our own daily lives is worth examination.
Jennifer Lynn Barnes recently earned her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Yale University, and her self-proclaimed affection for Joss Whedon shows in her dedication to portraying a heroine unfettered by outdated gender roles. (Claire protects Nix just as much as he protects her.) Barnes’ academic interest in psychology explains her literary interest in exploring the implications of genetically determined personalities and the vast territories of the mind and brain that remain beyond human understanding.
Reviewed by Caroline Osborn on January 17, 2013