We Were Restless Things by Cole Nagamatsu
Last summer, Link Miller drowned on dry land in the woods, miles away from the nearest body of water. His death was ruled a strange accident, and in the months since, his friends and family have struggled to make sense of it. But Link’s close friend Noemi Amato knows the truth: Link drowned in an impossible lake that only she can find. And what’s more, someone claiming to be Link has been contacting her, warning Noemi to stay out of the forest.
As these secrets become too heavy for Noemi to shoulder on her own, she turns to Jonas, her new housemate, and Amberlyn, Link’s younger sister. All three are trying to find their place—and together, they start to unravel the truth: about themselves, about the world, and about what happened to Link.
We Were Restless Things explores a year mired in grief, in exploration, in change.
Link Miller drowned on dry land, and his loved ones are just beginning to pick up the pieces. It’s nearly normal now, even though it never will be again. Life goes on for everyone else, after all.
But it’s not so simple. Noemi Amato knows the truth, or at least part of it: Link drowned in a lake only she can find. And her new housemate, Jonas, knows that there’s something more to the secrets Noemi keeps. Meanwhile, Amberlyn is looking for just one little moment of clarity surrounding her brother’s death, one explanation that might lay her grief to rest at last.
Tangled together even as they try to pull apart, they grapple with a world missing Link, and their places in it now that he’s gone. Some answers they can learn from one another, but for others, they’ll have to return to the forest where Link impossibly drowned. To the lake only Noemi can find.
To the truth, even if it hurts.
In some ways, We Were Restless Things feels something like literary fiction.
Twisting between the mundane and the fantastic, dappled with fabulism, it’s a hard book to pin down. It goes at its own pace, covering a year of change at a steady, unhurried pace. All the while, purple prose blooms only to disappear in a rush of clear, straightforward simplicity, and the characters waver along an unsteady path to whoever they might become.
Unfortunately, this means I was bored out of my skull.
I went into We Were Restless Things under the impression that this was a murder mystery, a fantasy novel. I expected more direct investigation into Link Miller’s death, and a confrontation of the grief surrounding it. Instead, I got a meandering book focusing on three different people who always seem to dance around each other without getting anywhere. Amberlyn’s character arc initially held the most interest for me, since she is Link’s sister, but she hardly seemed to grow, always existing in this state of wanting to know what happened without really, truly chasing it. Her budding relationship with Lyle offered a brief spark of interest, but that ultimately struck me as shallow and underdeveloped.
Meanwhile, Noemi and Jonas had an on-again-off-again sort of relationship that only ever felt weird, seeing as Noemi’s mom is dating Jonas’s dad. Sure, until the start of the book, they’d never met one another before, so it’s not as if they’re family, but it sure did feel weird anyway. Particularly when the book acknowledges that weirdness and then…continues along the same path, with the occasional branch-off toward a side character who showed more growth than any of the leads.
In truth, I probably should have set aside my “must complete this or else” tendencies and just DNFed the book. It might have saved me lots of exasperation, and let me pick up something more my speed. For all the bits of atmosphere that I enjoyed, and the glimpse into the complexity of teenage life (especially when it’s touched so heavily by grief), it still ended up falling flat. Blame the lackluster cast, I suppose. It’s tough to love a book whose characters don’t inspire you to care.
However, there was one feature that blew me out of the water.
Noemi Amato is asexual. It is on the page, clear as day, along with all her anxieties about it. Though I didn’t care much for her as a character, the way she finally talked about her sexuality made me feel for a moment that I was looking into a mirror. She doesn’t like to kiss, doesn’t want to have sex. In her case, she might consider it as a compromise to please someone she truly loves, but she feels no great interest or pleasure from it.
Most realistic of all, though, she struggles to find pride in it.
It’s hard, at first, to take pride in feeling like the odd one out, like the only one who feels this way. The feeling that something is broken is persistent and horrible and frustrating, even when you know enough to know that it just isn’t true. Noemi’s anxieties about how her asexuality might affect her future relationships are blisteringly familiar, and it’s a spark of ace rep I haven’t quite seen before.
Do I want solid, proud ace rep? Of course! But there’s something affirming about encountering rep that’s still on the way to self-acceptance, that acknowledges that difficult early stage when you realize that you don’t want what you’re expected to want.
If you’re willing to digest this book like you’re in AP Lit and it’s assigned reading, give it a go.
Maybe We Were Restless Things is better for readers willing to sit with it all, digest it slowly. Maybe readers who want to dissect it, one POV at a time, like their grade depends on it and they want the A. There’s no shame in that, and if that reading style speaks to you, hey, give it a go!
For me, though, it swerved far from the expectations created by the summary, and ultimately landed in dull, unsteady territory. Sometimes, I felt like it was too simple, too repetitive. Sometimes, it felt like it was trying perhaps a little too hard to be truly, deeply complex.
By about a third of the way in, though, I was certain it just wasn’t a book for me.
CW: underage drinking, violence (including gun violence), loss of a loved one, suicide, smoking, child abuse, animal death, implied self-harm, sex scene