There are stories that you love because of all the little elements that combine to make them. Then there are stories you love in spite of those elements.
Life in Outer Space has so many elements that I’m not generally a fan of. There’s the manic pixie dream girl trope – the idea of the liberated, free-spirited girl who breezes into the life of a (usually geeky) guy, turns his world upside down, and awakens the attractive and charming man within. There’s also the 16-year-old guy-speak, with its profusion of words like ‘arse’ and ‘tool’ and ‘suck,’ as well as the accompanying insights into the whole raging hormone thing. And there’s the fact that I tend to avoid stories that could safely be classified as romances. I do love romance; I just think it represents a part of life, not all of life itself, and it sometimes makes me squirmy reading about the love stories of the very young. Add to that the fact that I really don’t get online gaming. I just … don’t get it. And I’m far, far too wimpy for horror films.
Life in Outer Space has all of these strikes against it – and I loved it to bits.
It’s a funny, sweet, intelligent, and truly delightful story, focussing on a group of misfits brought together by their lack of cool and their goal of surviving high school – achieved, for the most part, by flying as far under the radar as possible. The narrator, Sam, deals with his parents’ failing relationship by silently hating his dad and almost-as-silently being there for his mum, offering distraction and anti-depressant relief in the only form he knows how: movie marathons. His friends, Mike, Adrian, and Allison, have their own battles to fight, but there’s a sort of unbroken code where life’s messes are concerned: they have each other’s backs, but no details are required.
Into this little defensive huddle of geekery waltzes Camilla, fresh from an international nomadic life and in the care of her rockstar music-journalist dad. Camilla so obviously doesn’t fit in anywhere and yet somehow this means she fits in everywhere. She manages to break into Sam’s intensely-invisible friend circle – and possibly even his heart.
Sam is freaking out. Life was uncomplicated before. Sam knew his position at the bottom of the food chain. Camilla is pulling him out of the only zone he knows, and it’s uncomfortable. Plus, he grows ever more increasingly aware that his heart is about to be broken.
Life in Outer Space deals with some serious topics – divorce, depression, broken families, teenage sexuality, and bullying – yet manages to stay sunny. It revels in classic tropes but somehow avoids feeling cliché. The individual chapter headings are a delight (“Why Princess Leia hair is always a bad idea,” for example, or “When the theme music from Jaws is completely inadequate”), and the pop culture references are seriously on point. The writing style is warm, engaging, and meaningful without getting sappy. But the best thing about Life in Outer Space is its characters. Melissa Keil has crafted an adorable and genuinely endearing group of friends. They may make mistakes, get caught up in their own thoughts, or miss social cues but they are also loving, authentic, and kind young adults who care about the people in their worlds.
So. Life in Outer Space started off as a book I felt I’d enjoy in spite of the nerdy teenage boy elements, and it ended up being one I loved because of those very things. Well done, Melissa Keil, you sly author-person. You won me over.
Bonus prize for: ridiculously gorgeous and vibrant cover art.
Life in Outer Space
Hardie Grant Egmont, 305 pages