I read Emezi’s debut novel, Freshwater, last year and was completely enthralled. It was unique and fascinating and like nothing I had ever read before. So I was pretty sure this was a novel I was going to read eventually no matter what the circumstances, but it moved up my TBR pretty quickly after it was on the shortlist for the 2019 National Book Award. (Also, NetGalley sent me an eARC so I really needed to read and review it for them too!)
“The truth does not change whether it is seen or unseen, it whispered in her mind. A thing that is happening happens whether you look at it or not. And yes, maybe it is easier not to look. Maybe it is easier to say because you do not see it, it is not happening.”
The city of Lucille is a utopian place, one where there are no more monsters to be found, after the revolution found them all out and sent them all for rehabilitation. At least, that’s what Jam and her friend Redemption have always been taught. But all their knowledge is challenged when one night a creature, a terrifying looking creature named Pet, emerges from one of Jam’s mother’s paintings and announces that it’s come to hunt a monster in their midst…a monster that it says lurks in Redemption’s house. Jam doesn’t want to believe what Pet is saying, but can she ignore the potential threat to her best friend’s well-being?
“The problem is, when you think you’ve been without monsters for so long, sometimes you forget what they look like, what they sound like, no matter how much remembering your education urges you to do. It’s not the same when the monsters are gone. You’re only remembering shadows of them, stories that seem to be limited to the pages or screens you read them from. Flat and dull things. So, yes, people forget. But forgetting is dangerous. Forgetting is how the monsters come back.”
First, wow. Just wow. This is so completely different from their first novel that I cannot in any way compare the two books, but what I can say is that this one affected me in a way their first did not. Pet confronts, head first, not only the things that we want to pretend don’t exist, but the very fact that we want to pretend that. Lucille is a place where monsters don’t exist anymore, everyone knows that the revolution cleared them out. So, for every day that the people there live “safe” in that knowledge, it is one more day that they forget what monsters look like. And that is dangerous, since just because you forget what to look out for, just because you act as though something doesn’t exist anymore, that doesn’t change the truth that it could still be there, could return at any time. And you are left more vulnerable than before. This is such an incredibly important message to everyone who would rather (and is able to) ignore the dark undercurrents (and overt-currents) in the world today – because that denial is causing pain, trauma, death and myriad other horrific side-effects. As Pet says, just because you don’t want to acknowledge the truth, doesn’t make it any less the truth. I honestly cannot say that I have ever read anything that so clearly and smoothly addresses this topic. Emezi impresses the importance of remembering, and teaching openly, about the difficult things (because ignoring doesn’t make them exist any less) in such a demonstrative and distinct way, so that’s it’s impossible to miss, but not didactically off-putting. What. A. Skill. Oh my gosh.
“Could you really make something stop existing just by shoving it away somewhere else?”
In addition to that, as with their last book, Emezi does a phenomenal job addressing complex topics in an accessible and accepting way. Jam, our MC, is trans and it’s presented in such a straightforward way. I just loved that it was not the focal point but just basic background about her; the same as how old she is or what her favorite hobbies are. Relatedly, Jam chooses to use sign language as her main form of communication, “voicing” only under certain circumstances. This too was introduced in an everyday sort of way, and completely taken in stride by her friends and family, which I also loved. This is the first time I’ve read a character like that and it was really interesting to me – one of my favorite parts of reading is learning and experiencing new things like that, and the related terminology, etc. (i.e. using “voice” to indicate vocalization). Along these same lines, Redemption’s family is non-traditional, as he has three parent partners, one of whom is non-binary, and the normalization of that, in the way Emezi presents it, along with the positive way its presented (families can and do look so different in so many places/cultures, so why is that not just as much of a legitimate look as any other?), was just so heart-warming to read. In yet another example of diversity, the librarian, Ube, is physically disabled and uses a wheelchair. All in all, I love that these aspects of the characters and their families are included, to give them visibility and spread understanding and insight and show how these pieces of themselves affect them, but I also appreciate that it’s not all there is to their lives or identities. There is just so much fantastic and diverse representation is this novel!
“‘Am I a terrible person?’ she asked Pet. ‘There is no such thing,’ it replied. ‘There’s only what you do.’”
The one thing that I do want to note is that this book seemed to me to lean more middle grade than young adult, as far as plot development and, really, the writing in general. I mean, I understand the concepts are heavy and emotional, but the way they are presented seems to me to be one that would appeal to and work for MG-level readers at least as much as a YA crowd. Not least because the main characters read as MG-age. But also because of the point Emezi is making with the story as a whole – there is no age too young to learn about the types of monsters that one may encounter in life, because knowing what to look for can protect you and your loved ones, because ignoring the possibility of monsters leaves you more vulnerable to being hurt by one, and because this kind of “education” can always be done in age-appropriate ways (as they demonstrate here). However, regardless of the “proper” target age for this novel, I (a solidly adult-aged person) enjoyed and learned from it. Especially, it’s worth noting, because it is (as it often is) the adult-aged characters who refuse to see the signs for what is happening right under their noses. And while of course no one ever wants to believe something like this is happening in their home or within their family (no actual spoilers, but TW for child abuse), ignoring those signs doesn’t make it not happen, or stop happening. So from that perspective, I absolutely recommend this novel widely, as far as reader age goes.
“Truth does not care if it feels true or not. It is true nonetheless.”
“Adults were like that so much of the time, inflexible when they thought they had something to protect.”
For a little more on the writing itself, it’s honestly written so well. Each characters’ voice and personality is distinct and alive, in a way that is vibrant, but never overdone. And it’s all presented in a way that it appropriate for a younger age audience, but isn’t “below,” if you will, a more adult audience. This is particularly true for our MC, Jam. I felt like her thought processes were authentic and relatable, but never crossed the line into gratuitous, which is impressive, because a lot of this book happened in her own head, as she worked through how to handle the complex situations she faced with her family, with Pet and, especially, with Redemption. Speaking of which, Jam’s relationship with Redemption was gorgeous. It was full of mutual trust and respect and, even when they fought, a willingness to understand and accept the other’s POV and reasons for the actions they took. Definitely had me thinking that we could all use more friendships like that, no matter how old we are – #goals.
“…it’s hard to build a new world without making people angry.”
Overall, I really thought this was spectacular in so many ways. And even the simplicity of the plot itself wasn’t enough to outweigh the overall greatness of the messages and the inclusionary-ness of the characters. Plus, it’s such a short, fast read that it’s more than worth the time it took to experience it. Really, just a wonderful addressing of some of the hardest aspects of reality, and the importance of recognizing them, even when it seems easier not to.