YA Fiction: Ability and Disability in All the Things We Never Said

In an attempt to remain spoiler-free, I haven’t mentioned the actual nature of the mystery in this novel. This has narrowed my ability for review, which (given how long I can go on about these things for), is probably not as much of an issue as you might think. There are however, a couple of very general spoilers about the novel’s end.

As a lover of mystery fiction ever since my discovery of the Famous Five books at the tender age of 6, and someone whose life has led to an interest in any aspect of media dealing with mental illness, neurodiversity, and disability as a whole, I was immediately intrigued by the description of Yasmin Rahman’s All the Things We Never Said. As a story which features anxiety, depression, and physical disability as a catalyst for a more sinister mystery, I was both excited and sceptical about the novel’s ability to appropriately and tentatively tie the two together. In a cultural world which all too often sees mental illness as the ‘twist’ in explaining somebody’s evil behaviour however, I was thrilled at the way this book approaches the Young Adult ‘mystery’ narrative from another perspective. Far from being the antagonist, the mental illness of one of the three central protagonists places the individual with a mental illness as the potential (and the term ‘potential’ is very important here—it’d be a pretty crappy mystery novel if the protagonist didn’t win out in the end) victim, rather than as the perpetrator of the crime. 

Whilst I often find experimentation with form and typography distracting and (quite frankly) irritating, I did find Rahman’s use of different typefaces to separate Mehreen’s rational thoughts from her anxiety-induced, intrusive thoughts very helpful. The first person narration used in each of these sections makes the interruption of Mehreen’s intrusive thoughts an even more immersive experience, as, like Mehreen is taken out of her internal monologue, we too are taken out of the narration. Mehreen’s naming of these anxious thoughts as ‘The Chaos’ is also a welcome change from narratives which merge the person and the illness together to such an extent that it is difficult to see the character as anything other than their mental illness. Culminating in an ultimate ‘crisis’ page which is almost entirely filled with the ‘chaos’ typography, Rahman’s novel does an excellent job at showing the escalation of anxiety if left unmanaged. Starting off as an occasional interruption in Mehreen’s brain and ending as almost all she’s able to think about, All the Things We Never Said demonstrates how, much like a physical infection, mental illness can slowly take over the brain and body if not appropriately treated.

All the Things We Never Said also features a central character with a physical disability: teenaged Cara is adapting to life in a wheelchair following a car accident. Admittedly, I did was disappointed when I discovered that this was the cause of Cara’s disability. Whilst it feels I’ve read and watched a number of books, movies, and TV shows featuring a character paralysed following an accident, the impact of other conditions which can lead to physical limitations are less often explored, furthering the public tendency to assume that those who are able to move their legs must be ‘lying’ about needing their wheelchair. Though the experiences of those who have suffered injuries must also be told, I would like to see more stories told about those whose need for mobility aids have other causes, and to see stories focusing on the daily impact that certain types of human treatment and a maladapted society can have on these peoples’ lives. 

My reservations about the way Cara’s disability came about laid aside, I did think Cara’s character was quite nicely developed. Cara confuses those around her by hiding her insecurities under a thick layer of sarcasm; is reluctant to accept any help in a bid to regain and retain her independence; and believes that ignoring her emotions may eventually make them go away. Furthermore, the fact that (spoiler alert) Cara’s distress and frustration is eased not by a miraculous recovery which is so often (anger-inducingly) seen in soap operas, but by open and honest conversation with her friends and family about how she feels and her needs. In allowing Cara to develop this level of openness and trust, Rahman demonstrates how, even in the absence of recovery, there is hope and happiness to be found in disability, if only those around you work with you to adapt and find solutions.

All the Things We Never Said is therefore an innovative take on the Young Adult thriller. In mixing mental illness and mystery not with the perpetrator but with the nearly-victim, Rahman refuses to add to the harmful stereotype that all those with mental illnesses are dangerous and all those who are evil must be mentally ill. In developing character personalities outside of their mental and physical disabilities, it is clear that the human experience comprises multiple aspects for everyone, and reminds us that if we do not want to be confined to and defined by one thing, then we do not need to be. The novel’s uplifting ending shows that miraculous cures are not necessary for a happy life: we can live with and through our challenges with the help and support of those around us, and with open conversations with all about our needs.

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