“Angels could look like many things.”
So can monsters.
This is one of those books that leave you in absolute awe. And not a little drained emotionally.
The story focuses on the town of Lucille in a unnamed country and, as so many Young Adult novels do, follows a young adult protagonist: Jam – one of the most vivid and alive characters I’ve come across recently. Jam and her best friend Redemption go on a hunt through Lucille to find and deal with a monster, aided by the hulking form of Pet.
Now I have to make an admission here: I am biased. My daughter – who is now six – has an unidentified speech and communication delay. She was almost entirely reliant on sign language – which I had to try to teach myself in order to teach her – when she began school. She is having a lot of support and help and intervention and her spoken language has now caught up, but the sign language is still there. It comes out on some of the words she has trouble pronouncing, or when she is really tired or ill.
So reading Pet and finding that Jam – a transgender girl – is also bilingual between sign language and voiced language is wonderful and touching. And, oddly, the second YA novel I’ve read recently where signing is a main character’s primary means of communicating: Frances Hardinge’s Deeplight was the other. And Emezi plays with those modes of language: they describe the choices between signing and voicing, the intimacy created when Redemption’s family learn to sign to be able to talk to her, her ability to listen to the house and hear what it tells her, her silent thought conversations with with Pet. It is just wonderful.
In the waiting, she fell asleep herself, startling awake only when she heard the floorboards singing a song she hadn’t heard before. It was extraordinarily soft, barely a sound, even, but Jam knew it was there. She knew every sound the house made, and this was a new one, and it wasn’t the house making it; this was just the house telling her.
And let us turn to Pet.
Pet is a wonderful creation, somehow bearing echoes of so much from the biblical Book of Revelations to Predator! Pet was a piece of art, a painting of a creature done by Jam’s mother:
A torso twisted all the way around, still furred, but the thick white was interrupted by a new bloodiness, intermittent streaks, as if the figure had made a mess while eating something. Or tearing something apart. The arms remained long, but they were feathered now, an iridescent gold ending in obscenely human hands…. [Bitter had] painted her own hands into the figure, painted crude stitches that grafted her wrists to its feathered arms. Jam shuddered; it was weird to see her mother’s hands butchered like that. Bitter had painted the skin a brown that was stripped of any vibrance, so they looked dull and dead. Only the fingernails had color; they were metal claws the same gold as the feathers, as if some essence of the figure had pierced the mutilated flesh and burst out from the cuticles.
That’s just glorious, isn’t it? Fantastic. Vivid, muscular prose, unflinchingly full of horror – look at the verbs carrying it through: “twisted, tearing, butchered, pierced, burst”.
However, Pet does not remain in the canvas for long: it bursts out as a fully embodied and very physical creature, a hunter entering our world to seek out and hunt monsters.
The balance in the novel is exquisite – powerfully realistic yet full of the language of symbolism. Naturalistic but supernatural. It does not quite feel like magic realism, but something else. Something with elements of fantasy, parable, fairytale. The word I’d settle on is extraordinary: the ordinary becomes extra in the world of Lucille, under Emezi’s writing, in the presence of Pet, through the eyes of Jam.
The dramatic personae is populated with names like Aloe and Bitter – Jam’s loving parents – Redemption – her best friend – and Malachite, Beloved and Whisper – his three parents. And Moss, Redemption’s younger brother. The naming seemed to distance the characters from the reader whilst, simultaneously, the language and description – especially in the wonderful and warm depiction of Redemption’s extended family – was so very real and vibrant. The love of the families was bright and soft and warm and so very very sensually described.
Music and voices poured out of the kitchen, pulling them in. Jam could already feel the familiar warmth of Redemption’s house wrapping around her like a soft, fuzzy blanket she’d known for years….
His mother, Malachite, was punching down bread dough in a large ceramic bowl, the sleeves of her linen shirt rolled up to her elbows, her mouth open in a laugh and her eyes crinkled. His father, Beloved, was sitting on a stool across from her, sketching her face while the recipient of her smile, Redemption’s third parent, Whisper, juggled three oranges and a grapefruit, their eyes focused on the fruit, tongue sticking out in concentration. Two of Redemption’s uncles were sitting at the long table, picking out stones from trays of dried beans, while his baby cousins played under the table. His aunts would likely be out in the garden, whispering some kind of magic to the plants or pulling up weeds.
And yet within this warmth, despite the assurances of the angels that there were no more monsters left in Lucille, Pet’s ominous presence reminds us that something lurks there.
The town of Lucille, governed by “angels” who have, a generation previously, had rid the city of “monsters” in a revolution. What were those monsters? Considering the presence of Pet, I was anticipating an antagonist of equal stature, equal physicality, equal otherness. The actual revelation was massively more powerful.
The novel’s theme, for me, is a warning against complacency, an exhortation to vigilance. An invitation – a compulsion – to see the unseen, to think the unthinkable:
A hunter must be patient. For now, we do not know enough. Your job is to find out more, and all you have to do is be willing to see, to admit that there are unseens waiting to be seen.
In a world rife with #metoo revelations, instituionalised scandals plaguing (amongst far too many others) the Catholic Church, football training camps and the BBC, with (alleged) Weinsteins and Savilles, it is a message that feels terribly real and credible. And important.
Without a hesitation, this is a five-star novel – not a five-star young adult novel but a five-star novel for everyone.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Date: 7th November 2019