1. The voice.
What got my attention first, from the second and third paragraphs of the book:
It's half past three already, and nobody awake except for Hide and Mack and Mercy and me, unloading our week's ration of scuffed-up bottles and tins into the broad-wide kitchen cabinets. Most supply nights that's all there is to it: the swish and thunk of stacking tins, the slow quiet of faucets stopping, pipes sleeping, water mains humming lower as the city Above goes to bed. The air moves slower with everyone laid asleep; gets dustier, goes back to earth. There's a light by the kitchens, run by a wire drawn down off the old subway tracks, and the rest is feel-your-way dark until morning, when Jack Flash lights the lamps with a flick of his littlest finger.Obviously these lines raise a lot of intriguing story questions (why do these people collect scuffed-up bottles and tins? Why are they underground? How can this guy light the lamps with his finger?), and those were interesting. But what was more important to me was the obvious authority in the voice, as I was talking about in the previous post: the control Leah demonstrates in setting a tone and doling out details. The lines about "the slow quiet of faucets stopping" and "The air moves slower" themselves are slow and quiet, with a murmuring, rolling-on rhythm, which draws me into the world through the sound of the prose, as well as what it's describing. She doesn't say outright that this happens underground, but trusts us readers to figure it out through phrases like "the city Above" or "the old subway tracks" -- and I love novelists who have faith in me as a reader, whose own obvious intelligence requires me to pay attention. The caps on "Curse" and "Pass" indicate this place has its own language, its own ways of showing meaning, different from our regular world. And finally, some of those phrases are just beautiful, like "feel-your-way dark" and "sparks jumping out of things to kiss at his knuckles." These virtues captured me immediately and inspired me to want to read on.
Jack's got a good Curse. He might have made it Above if not for the sparks always jumping out of things to kiss at his knuckles. Me, the only thing good 'bout my Curse is that I can still Pass. And that's half enough to keep me out of trouble.
2. The perfect match between plot and theme.
Shortly after the underground world of Safe is established as a place where outcasts from Above can receive care and acceptance, an old enemy -- a former resident -- invades Safe, kills its founder, and forces many of its residents to flee to Above . . . which is actually the everyday contemporary world we live in, which is also the world they fear most. As Matthew, the narrator and protagonist, tries to figure out how he can defeat the enemy and reclaim his home, he also discovers the secret history of Safe, and that his beloved home has never been as much of a refuge for all as he believed. But can you admit everyone into your refuge, and what are the limits of that generosity? What happens to people when they stay inside their safe borders all the time, by their own will or by others'? How do community myths form, and how are they maintained? Who can you save -- or can you save anyone?
The story's events keep pushing Matthew back toward these questions, and then he has to make choices about them and take action from the results, which leads to more story events and more questions: the perfect match between plot and theme. Above is a book about insiders and outsiders, myths and truths, safety and isolation vs. openness to experience. It's thinking through these real-world moral and ethical problems using fictional people and events -- but the thinking never feels heavy-handed or moralistic, because we care so much about the characters and their problems are so real. And I get really excited about books that are about things, and especially ones where the thinking-through is as intelligent and the emotion as real as it is here.
3. A true love story.
Matthew's quest to regain his home isn't the only plot in the book; he is also desperately in love with Ariel, a girl who can shapeshift into a bee. Ariel is from Above, while Matthew was born in Safe, and that among other things makes her a little bit unknowable to him. But he tries as hard as he can to know her and to keep her safe. . . . I am an absolute sucker for a good romance between flawed, real people -- it is probably my favorite plot in fiction, to be honest -- and there are moments in this book that just made my heart split open with their realness and beauty.
4. The entirely human, entirely matter-of-fact diversity.
I'll acknowledge upfront that it's kind of weird and self-reflexive to call this out, like Look! People of color! People romantically interested in the same gender! All of it presented as just human and not anything of note!, when clearly the very praise itself indicates it's something of note. But the truth is that such a presentation can still be rare enough in fiction, especially YA fantasy, that it IS actually of note, and it's also something I really value in fiction, and it's done right here.
So: Matthew? Half-Punjabi, half-French Canadian, with fish scales down his back. The strongest, most stable, and long-lasting relationship? Between two ladies. The wisest person in the book? A Native woman medical doctor -- not wise because she is Native by any means, in the stereotyped wisdom-of-savages way, but the fact that she grew up on a reservation means that she has a specific opinion about the book's situation, which comes directly out of her personal experience. It was such a pleasure to see all of these people brought together not in a showy way -- a la the Look! People of color! bit cited above -- but simply in honest community, with all of the compromises and joys that entails.
5. A protagonist who takes responsibility for his actions and grows thereby.
Another way that Jane Austen has influenced my life: I love protagonists who are brought to see the truth of their actions, who recognize and admit their mistakes, and who keep trying. That is where the real work of character happens, in those recognitions and continuations, and that's ultimately what makes a lot of coming-of-age novels satisfying, I think: that sense that the character is improving as a person, and will continue on the right track even after the novel ends. That happens for Matthew here, and his new wisdom in the face of the community's turmoil feels both momentarily surprising, and ultimately reassuring and right.
This is a powerful, painful, gorgeous book -- not for all readers, but what book is? And if you like beautiful writing, love stories, personal stories, marvelous imagination, terrific debuts, and/or thinking about big questions through narrative, it is well worth your time. Do check it out.
- Rebecca Rabinowitz's review: "Above has stunning prose and went straight to my heart, for reasons artistic and political; for story; and for how story, character, politics, and prose are one."
- The Tor.com review: "Bobet’s prose stands up to the task she sets before it: telling a complicated and fantastical story of a bloody, dangerous, heart-twisting coming of age"
- The Publishers Weekly starred review
- Interviews with Leah:
- How she wrote and sold the book (and how the story came about)
- On Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction
- On dystopian literature (though it isn't actually a dystopian book, please note)
- Leah's website