________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 41. . . .June 22, 2012



Leah Bobet.
New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine (Distributed in Canada by Scholastic Canada), 2012.
363 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
ISBN 978-0-545-29670-0.

Subject Heading:

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Barb Janicek.

*** /4



“What went on with you and the girl?” he asks, hands in gloves tucked in pockets.

I stick my hands in my own pockets and look at the grass that pricks between my bare toes. At the smudge of spilled-out blood on the knee of my jeans. Jack’s known me since I was four and shy and Mamaless. He’ll find me out if I go lying.

“She wasn’t where I left her,” I start, breathing the grass and trees and hot thick evening to brace me ‘gainst my own Tale. “She went away before I came back, and I had to hold fire to another one’s face so he’d tell me where she’d gone.”

Jack is watching me under his thick old prickle-brows. He nods once: Go on. Tell on.

“She went back to the one who hurt her. The one who – who broke her,” I stutter, and my hands curl into hurting fists all of their own design. It pulls the skin where they’re wounded, and they sweat under the bandages. It’s not hot enough, eveningtime, for them to sweat so. I still want to hit him.

I want worse to hit myself.

“And?” he says. A hand on the back. My own tricks used against me.

“And I hit him and I kicked him ‘til he half died,” I blurt out, and my shoulders hunch down like tunnel-walk, though there aren’t no tunnels for hours.

“You’re not all the way sorry, are you?” he says. Jack has known me since I was four years old. I shake my head, tiny slow. Jack’s breath goes out with a huff that shakes me through. But there’s no Killer! come out on the tail of it. There’s no red in his eyes when I dare to look up.

He doesn’t send me away.

What he says is: “That’s grave, Teller,” low as low, not changing one whit except to shift his weight left foot to right. “Grave, indeed.”

“There’s more,” I whisper. “I got mad at her after.” Jack’s eyebrow goes up. She’d never say different. She’d not raise her voice to give answer. I’m the one who bears the Tales, and the Tales I tell are true. She’d just run. She’d grow wings and fly away from my lying, and it’d be no more than I deserved for finding ways to leave bruises without touching skin to skin.

“I shouted,” and my voice has gone small. “I shouted right in her face, and I scared her. I grabbed her,” I say, down to a mutter. “It bruised. I didn’t want her to run no more. I try to be good with her, talk soft and make Safe, and I told her all the stories so she’d know we wouldn’t hurt her. But she just keeps running…”

* * *

I’m writing to you as myself. Atticus said that writers of memoirs shouldn’t talk about themselves in the first person, but it’s not myself that mattered here, not in the end. It’s the people who aren’t for speaking: the dead, the banished. The ones who we can’t know what they have to say for themselves, but it’s important to make our best try.

That’s what’s meant by Telling. That’s why we keep the Tales.

I know what there is to say about me.

I was born here. My ma had scaly gills down the sides of her neck and my pa had the feet of a lion. When I was three, my ma died of a cold that didn’t get better. When I was ten, my pa went up on his supply shift and didn’t come back, and I was given as foster to Atticus.

I was Teller, and I am Killer, and I keep the Sanctuary of Safe, even as I betrayed its every reason when I sent my one beloved up to be well. I am every bit as capable of breaking a body, breaking a heart, as Atticus and the Whitecoats ever were.

I can Tell, and I can Pass. And maybe, I can change.


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.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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