Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Above

Above by Leah Bobet
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's review
Apr 01, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: ya, 2012, fantasy, cover-love
Read in March, 2012 — I own a copy

Matthew was born in Safe, deep under the city Above; it's all he's ever known. Safe, his mother who died when he was three - she had gills in her neck; his father who had lion's feet - he went up Above and never returned when Matthew was ten; and the forty-odd other misfits escaping the whitecoats Above. Some, like Matthew, can Pass, can look Normal and go Above for supplies. (His Curse hides under his clothes.) Others, like one of the five founders, Atticus, are obviously Freak: crab's claws instead of hands, horns, or, like Jack, the ability to control electricity, which includes leaving a sparking trail of blown lightbulbs and malfunctioning equipment wherever he goes.

Now a young man and Teller for Safe, Matthew holds all the stories of the people he calls family - all except for Ariel, the scared girl he found in the Cold Pipes whom he loves. She sprouts bee's wings when scared or angry, and changes fully into a bee at will - very handy when you want to escape dangerous situations or difficult conversations. She has a tendency to run away, though so far she's always come back.

Safe is a refuge for the misfits of the city Above, until one day it is breached, the door opened wide, and shadows pour in. Shadows that can kill and fear only fire. Shadows that come with Corner, renamed Killer and exiled from Safe years ago. Matthew escapes with Ariel, and with Whisper and Jack make their way to a safehouse Above: the home of Marybeth, a doctor who's helped them since the beginning. But who opened the door for the Shadows? What happened to the others? And what is the real story about Corner?

Matthew is Teller for Safe, and in going Above he discovers the truth about all the stories he holds safe, and the danger of a lie.

First of all, I want to give Leah Bobet a big hug. She has here a novel that recaptures the magic of storytelling, and reading, and my childhood, and renews my faith and respect in well-written YA. Above is, above all, extremely well written, crafted and polished. But it's so much more: it's a wonderful, intriguing, exciting urban fantasy, a story of depth and layers and meaning. A human story, rich in all its irony.

There might be mild spoilers in this review, it's hard to say, but for once I want to really talk about a novel, about the things that struck me so much while reading it. There are no big twists to give away, nothing like that, but I don't want to infringe on anyone else's reading discoveries, so if you're thinking of reading this and want to approach it in ignorance - the best way to go, really - then stop here with my complete endorsement of this book. Otherwise, read on. Because it gets interesting.

There are elements of Above that brought to mind Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn: a group of misfits living in secret away from mainstream society. I loved the concept when I was 11, and I love it now. So the premise was always going to be a win for me. But Bobet has done some new and wonderful things with it, and none of them will make you think "Oh X-Men rip-off". This is something quite different.

It's nominally set in Toronto, but setting doesn't feature as precisely as it does in American books, where authors tend to use real places and position stories in states (my theory is that it's such a patchwork country and where you come from matters a lot, so state- and place-names are strong markers for American readers in providing context that non-American readers, like me, mostly miss out on. But it's just a theory), and you could easily imagine this story taking place wherever you live, which is fun. Since I currently live in Toronto, I picked up on the few little signs scattered here and there, rather like a scavenger hunt. But this story isn't tied to a single place, and that's an important element.

For a story about truth and perception, I can't go far without discussing the prose. Written in first person in Matthew's distinct voice, we get a mix of poetry and an outsider's view, an alien voice that is skilfully written to bring us into his world, not the other way around. And unlike Todd in The Knife of Never Letting Go - another character who spoke in his own grammar and syntax - Matthew's voice was never annoying. Instead it's refreshing, original and distinct. It's Matthew through and through, who never had a formal education but is bright and educated in his own way.

"Oh, Matthew," [Ariel] says, real different now, and leans our foreheads together.

I breathe in spring. I breathe spring and gold and the smell of powdered honey, sweet as peaches on the back of your tongue. My eyes water. It's a thousand kisses in a breath. [p.78]

The fantasy element is strong in Above, and your imagination plays an active role. Not much is explained, as such, but there is plenty for the reader to infer, and understand. What's surprising is how much is meant literally - in the poetic flow of words and ideas coming from Matthew, the distinction between real and unreal becomes blurred, opening the doors to imagination that much wider. Take the shadows, for instance. They really are shadows, and yet they're so much more than that. They're corporeal, but not.

There's another [shadow] behind it. Five. Six. Dozens.
"Narasimha's child," they whisper dead and loving, like the rustle of wings; like a voice in the dark that knows all your tales and names.
I run.
They follow in my feet, my footfalls. They jump between licks of sunlight like kids jumping the sewer flow, gone and then there again in the next bit of shade. They don't breathe (and I'm breathing too hard). They don't trip or slow or mess up (and there's too much on the ground to keep track of, to scramble over, for me to not, sometime, mess up).
[...] When I see the wall at the end of the alley it's almost no surprise anymore. Dead end. The end.
Dead. [pp.114-5]

Most of the time, a thing sounds like it's not being described literally but metaphorically or symbolically, or in code, and then later you'll learn that, no, actually that is exactly how it is. The trick is that, in Above, what's Normal isn't what's normal. There's a new "normal", and it's strange and unique and unpredictable and unknowable. A lot of the time, it reads like a dream, like make-believe, or like ignorance: as if, if Matthew had our perspective and language, things wouldn't be strange at all. That maybe he's just being poetic or metaphorical and simply lacks the words to bring the alien back into the known. Not so. Matthew is drawing for us a world we are ignorant of, and for as much as they think they're freaks, or beasts, or monsters even, Matthew's story shows just how human they really are.

The beauty of the prose - Matthew's distinct way of Telling the story - is that it perfectly captures several things at the same time: the child-like understanding, the capacity for seeing things differently, the nightmarish quality to much of the story, and the sheer breadth of possibility.

Take Corner, whose real name is Angel. Even "Corner" is not the real misfit nickname: it was "Coroner", because of the bloodtouch, a grisly joke. The first half of the book, I thought Corner was a guy. There was just something about the way Corner was talked about. Corner became Killer and was exiled from Safe, and Matthew always refers to Corner as "it" - I thought because of Corner's "killer" status, "it" was reduced to something of a monster.

And in a way, that's part of it. Because later Corner is referred to as a girl, and then it becomes clear that she - he - it, was actually a hermaphrodite. Corner uses a blend of gender pronouns to refer to itself: "sie" and "hir", which does something different again. But because Matthew always called Corner "it", and we didn't know the story, he renders Corner a true monster, not human. A thing. And it's hard to get a visual sense of Corner. Which makes it all the more mysterious and nightmarish, and the truth all the more heartbreaking.

The story comes together slowly and lovingly - I can't describe it any other way, but Matthew is careful about words and deeds and there is a tremendous amount of respect in everything he says and does, that comes across strongly. He takes his role as Teller seriously, and is observant, patient and listens well. The pacing is even, controlled and steady throughout, even in scenes of action and suspense. This is how Matthew Tells a story, and it's never dull. His voice is consistent and true to his character.

The power of language is a strong theme in Above, but it's more of a way to tell - show - the story than the dominant message, though the power of words and how they affect people is a constant presence. At its heart, Above is about finding a place for yourself in the world. It's something we all struggle with, so it's very easy to relate to the misfits. More, they've endured one of our worst nightmares: scientific, medical prodding and probing. Tests, experiments, shock therapy, and worse. Being locked up in institutions while the doctors - whitecoats, the people of Safe call them - try to find a way to make them "normal" again.

And herein lies the strongest theme of the book: the concept of normal. I have to bring this back to the setting, because this strikes me as so Toronto. It's a grungy, grotty city that's surprisingly clean - the grottiness is a sense I have about the place more than a real characteristic. It's one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, so looking around, you don't get a sense of what real "normal" is. Different languages, food, dress, culture - yes, and more. Toronto is also a city of homeless people, drug addicts buying crack on street corners, people with mental health problems, sex workers, runaway kids and everything in between. You see it all, just like you see it in other big cities. It's a mix of sophistication, art, culture and glamour, and the forgotten. Above is about the forgotten ones, the ones we "normal" people try not to make eye contact with on the street.

Again, by not naming the place, by letting the setting come to the reader rather than the reader going to the location, Bobet allows Above to be a story that we take into our hearts, relate to, find familiarity in, and connect with in a deeply personal way. Instead of a story about homeless teens or schizophrenics, it's a story about "freaks" - because isn't that how mainstream, conservative and content society sees that portion of the population? The theme is nothing new, but the way Bobet handled it, incorporated it and rendered it, is.

This is not your standard YA fare, this is not a paranormal romance or a science fiction story. It's a story about understanding the world and finding a place in it, one that is true to you rather than forcing you to conform to it. I don't have scales or horns or wings, I can't talk to ghosts or control electrical currents. But I've felt out of place. I've felt small and alone in crowds. I've felt not-normal. I connected with Above and its characters emotionally, and had my heart wrung at the end. I loved that their misfit nature is never explained - there's no virus, no strange phenomena causing it, or none that we know of. They simply are. And that makes it all the more poignant, and bitter-sweet, and believable.

It might take you a while to get into the story, to get the hang of Matthew's voice, his narration style, but once you do you'll be well rewarded with a unique, superb story that tells an age-old tale in a new and vibrant way.
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Comments (showing 1-2)

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message 2: by Muse (new)

Muse Here I've put this on my wishlist. :) Sounds like something I would really enjoy. Thanks for the rec.

message 1: by K. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K. Incredible review. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

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