CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 41. . . .June 22, 2012
Matthew is the first child born in Safe. Both his parents are dead, but he has been raised by Atticus, one of the founding members and a guy who has crab claws for hands. Matthew knows no other life, having only ventured Above a handful of times, even though he can Pass more readily than other members of Safe. On one of those occasions, he met Ariel in the tunnels on the way back. Ariel, who is skittish and has a tendency to run away because of how much she’s been hurt in the past, grows wings and turns into a bee when she is angry or emotional. Naturally, Matthew is in love with her, wants to protect her, and keep her in Safe. Unfortunately, the past has come back to haunt Safe, in the form of Shadows, led by Corner – the only person ever to be stripped of the Sanctuary provided by Safe. When Matthew, Ariel, and a few other residents who survive Corner’s attack on Safe survive, they make it to Above and have to find a way to take back their home and defeat Corner.
There are lots of ways to describe Above, but easy is not one of them. It is a difficult, and often frustrating, read. Told in the voice of 17-year-old Matthew whose role in the underground world of Safe is Teller, the language is deliberately disjointed and vague. It is an authentic voice, but leads to much confusion. Too many passages had to be re-read, and in truth I had to force myself on multiple occasions to pick the book back up and continue reading. I wonder how many young adults – or other adults – would do the same?
Part of the confusion stems from expectations and preconceived notions. The cover art is stunning. The description on the book jacket is alluring. On first glance, Above seems like it should be on the reading list of any fantasy lover, even one who is sick and tired of dystopian teen fiction. But make no mistake: it is not a dystopia or a fantasy. Set in a very recognizable present-day Toronto, Above is a world that we inhabit. It is where Normal people live. Safe, where Matthew was born and raised, is under ground in the sewer and subway system. Safe is for people who, Above, would be called Freak. It takes several chapters before the reader fully realizes that these are not fantastic worlds inhabited by people who have survived some environmental disaster or political catastrophe, but rather the story of people who live on the streets, who do not want to be put into any system because of how they have been treated in the past. Most people in authority Above are referred to as Whitecoats by the residents of Safe, although the good ones are called Doctor. Eventually, readers learn the difference between sick and well, and the distinction between Freak and Sick. The former describes anyone with a physical deformity or difference. The latter, “Sick”, refers to mental health. The original founders met and escaped from Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, and, over two decades, they allowed other people who were different and rejected by mainstream society to join them. That is, until Shadows invade their space, killing many and driving the rest out. These distinctions are significant because, while most fantasy and sci-fi novels are metaphors, Above is truly a story about mental health (Sick) and anyone who is shunned for being physically different (Freak), with a few other-worldly elements (Shadows) used to describe the fragmenting of the mind. Anything supernatural is practically coincidental.
Bobet explores the impact of being treated badly while Sick or Freak in her debut novel, making it all about character development rather than plot. This is not a bad thing. It just comes down to expectations. Anyone who expects a plot full of action, or any real mystery, will be sorely disappointed. People looking for fantasy because the book has elements like shadows and ghosts, will be let down when they realize it is all about the characters. Readers who are hoping for a strong science-fiction read because the Freaks are mutants who live underground will be left wanting by the lack of explanation behind the genetic mutations. Much like the characters the novel honours, Above resists being labeled and defined. It doesn’t fit nicely into a genre category, and the language is often difficult to get past. This is both its weakness and its strength, for it is an accomplished piece of writing. The payoff at the end, for those who are able to finish the novel, is worthwhile. Bobet takes her sweet time letting Matthew unravel the thread of why each of the characters has come to be the way they are, but those threads do get more or less tied off by the end. Above is a book that will stay with you long after you put it down. The characters are complex. Their choices have consequences. Truth is so important it is practically currency, and personal stories – Tales, preserved and remembered by Teller – have Power.
Once you get past the feeling of bait-and-switch, and if you can get the feel of Matthew’s voice, Above could be an important read for strong readers who want to see characters deal with mental health issues in complex ways. Bobet does not shy away from, or sugar-coat, the isolation that can come with gender identity disorder, suicide, schizophrenia, or genetic deformities. Ultimately, that’s what this story is about. It’s about belonging. It’s about identity. It’s about being named, being seen, being accepted, and being loved.
Above is no fantasy. It is a very real story.
Barb Janicek is a Children’s Librarian with Kitchener Public Library, in Kitchener, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.