#IMWAYR: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
My mother and I went to do some shopping recently, mostly to find birthday gifts for a relative, and two things happened:
- I am starting to get in the holiday spirit now! Which is great, because the holidays are awesome, and which is also terrible, because I have several more weeks of homework to get through that I now want to completely avoid.
- My mother and I went into Old Navy and discovered that our local Old Navy might just be the single worst clothing store on the planet. They were playing one of those songs that sounded so bad, you had to wonder if the people who made the song made it ironically, or if they actually heard themselves and thought, "This sounds good! Let's subject the entire world to it for several decades." And also—Old Navy had a bunch of sweaters, and one of them was the most comically hideous color and texture I have ever seen in my entire life. It was truly astounding. I'll spare you the details.
With that, today I am recommending yet another amazing book: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi.
This book is a YA (young adult) novel, not an MG (middle grade) novel, and it includes mature content. Also, I will include a content warning for strong allusions to physical or sexual abuse—nothing is graphic, but one thing I learned from reading Pet is that things do not have to be graphic to be horrifying.
Also, I am including an excerpt from the opening of the book at the very end of the review, and it is labeled so you can skip it if you are avoiding spoilers.
I did a bit of brief blog reconnaissance (blogconnaissance?) to determine that I've seen this YA novel recommended by Elisabeth Ellington at The Dirigible Plum (who, alas, is on a break from #IMWAYR—her posts were always fantastic), Cheriee Weichel at Library Matters, and Shaye Miller at The Miller Memo (who recommended this back before I was even on #IMWAYR). That's honestly not a ton of recommendations considering that (a) this book is a National Book Award Finalist, a Stonewall Honor Book, AND a Walter Dean Myers Honor Book and (b) this book is easily one of the best and most utterly unique YA novels I've ever had the chance to read. So let's dive into this truly remarkable story!
Part of me wants to summarize this book, but because it is very important that I don't give too much away, I'll let you read the (excerpted) publisher's description of Pet and then share a few of my own comments:
A genre-defying novel from the award-winning author NPR describes as “like [Madeleine] L’Engle…glorious.” A singular book that explores themes of identity and justice.
Pet is here to hunt a monster. Are you brave enough to look?
There are no monsters anymore, or so the children in the city of Lucille are taught. Jam and her best friend, Redemption, have grown up with this lesson all their life. But when Jam meets Pet, a creature made of horns and colors and claws, who emerges from one of her mother's paintings and a drop of Jam's blood, she must reconsider what she's been told. Pet has come to hunt a monster, and the shadow of something grim lurks in Redemption's house. Jam must fight not only to protect her best friend, but also to uncover the truth, and the answer to the question--How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist?
So that's the official summary of Pet. And I suspect you have around a million questions—as did I when I was first reading reviews of this novel! But before I get into what this book is, I'd rather start off by describing what this book is not. This book is not a dystopia/utopia story—I mean, it kind of is, but it also doesn't read like the creepy dystopian sci-fi you might be thinking of. It is also not a story of a faceless general public fighting against our protagonists—Pet deals with broad societal themes, but it is a personal story too. This book is not long—it clocks in at just 208 pages (and it looks even shorter in paperback). And this book is not as abstract or hard to understand as it may seem—the publisher's description is just a little cagey, and it should be, since you really do want to understand this book precisely the way Akwaeke Emezi writes it.
OK, so what is Pet, then? Well, basically, Pet is a story of the good and evil in the world—it's a story of a world where progress has been made, but also a world where that progress leads to dangerous, dangerous ignorance. I'd like us to start exploring that world by talking about our protagonist: Jam. Jam is a Black, teenage, transgender girl. She is mostly mute, communicating with others via sign language—she voices (as Emezi puts it) if she has to, but only if. Before you read Pet, it's easy to look at Jam only through the lens of our world, and to see her as nothing more than a set of marginalized identities. But beyond being wildly reductive, that is also not at all how Akwaeke Emezi depicts Jam. The characteristics of Jam that I just mentioned are completely accepted in Lucille, the city where she lives—and I know we've all heard of books that let identities fade into the background, but the way Emezi does it for Jam in this novel, you'd think they practically invented the idea of not making a big deal about these identities. In Pet, what really matters about Jam is that she loves and is loved, that she notices things other people do not (Emezi gives her one brilliantly unique trait that I'll leave for you to discover in the book), that she is afraid in the same ways anyone would be but slowly finds the courage to push onward, seeking the truth. Pet is not really a character-centered book, exactly—but it hardly has flat characters, and Jam is a shining exception of that.
So that's Jam. Now let's talk more broadly about Lucille—again, not a person, but a city, a society. As you will recall from the summary, Lucille is a city with no monsters anymore. And with regards to how literal or figurative said monsters are...let's just say that it doesn't matter much. They're still monsters. Lucille is a city of progress—and not a creepy kind of progress, either. It's kind of what would happen if we got rid of all the politicians screaming about things like critical race theory and actually dealt with important issues—in book blogger terms, if you find yourself recommending diverse books or nonfiction that reveals the actual, painful history of your country, then Lucille is basically the city you wish the world would become. Lucille is a city of love, and of joy—we see the peaceful, beautiful, mischievous, laughter-filled homes that Jam, Redemption, and their families live in, and those scenes are truly some of the loveliest depictions of everyday life you'll see in pretty much any book. But Lucille...has its dark sides. For starters, Emezi asks us to consider the lengths we will go to if we want to make a better, safer, kinder society. Because in Lucille, the actions that were taken to make it the city it is now...well, they're painful. Scarring. Even tragic. But in Pet, that doesn't necessarily mean they shouldn't have been taken—it just means that the brightest of worlds may necessitate the darkest pasts. And then there's another thing Pet brings up. I'll bring back the quote from the summary: "How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist?" Not admitting that monsters exist isn't what you might think. It's not a bunch of adults being like, "Oh, you silly child, I'm going to ignore you for no reason because this is a kidlit book and adults do that in kidlit books/apparently in real life too." No, there's a reason why Jam, and Redemption, and Pet (we're getting to Pet—oh boy, are we getting to Pet) can't convince people that monsters exist. And it's because of a startling truth that Emezi makes clear—even if we are ever to make the kind of progress that we wish for in the world, that Lucille's citizens wished for and acted on, it is tempting to think of that progress as having an endpoint you can reach. But there is no endpoint—unless you want to live in a world where people are so ready (and even rightfully desperate, at times, considering those aforementioned dark actions) to be done with the progress that they will not allow themselves to believe that the progress isn't finished. Akwaeke Emezi is thinking ahead, past the point when we (hopefully) fix our society, and asking us: Can we ever truly be done?
And then there's Pet. Pet is what happens when you mix the mindset of a radical revolutionary; the dialogue of an exhausted, wizened old parent or grandparent; and the abilities and appearance of LITERAL NIGHTMARE FUEL (the hands—oh, the hands) and combine them into one of the most bizarre, beautiful, and terrifying characters I've ever seen in a book. Quick reminder of the synopsis: Pet crawls out of one of Jam's mother's paintings (you know, like you do) and informs Jam that bad things linger in the home of her best friend, and it is there to "hunt" down those bad things. Fun, right? No. (By the way, that word, "hunt"—it's one of the many euphemisms in this book that are somehow even more emotionally impactful than all the raw details. I've never seen a book that can evoke such an emotional impact while still remaining relatively clean and un-graphic about whatever horrible things go on.) Pet is not here to be comforting, or to be kind—but it is here to do good in the world, no matter the cost. Pet's relationship with Jam is absolutely fascinating, but I'll leave it for you to discover in the book. But I'll say that Pet pushes Jam to look beyond everything she has been told about Lucille, and to see what is truly happening in the world around her. Pet is a truly remarkable character, and you absolutely need to discover it for yourself in this story.
I'd like to close out this review, both because I don't want to give too much away and because I think I've pretty much said what I needed to. But I would like to include an excerpt (with incredibly slight spoilers) from the very opening of the book so you can get the slightest sense of how Pet actually comes together. Here it is:
There shouldn’t be any monsters left in Lucille.
The city used to have them, of course—what city didn’t? They used to be everywhere, thick in the air and offices, in the streets and in people’s own homes. They used to be the police and teachers and judges and even the mayor; yeah, the mayor used to be a monster. Lucille has a different mayor now. This mayor is an angel; the last couple of mayors have all been angels. Not like a from-heaven, not-quite-real type of angel but a from-behind-and-inside-and-in-front-of-the-revolution, therefore-very-real type of angel. (End of the excerpt)
Akwaeke Emezi writes Pet with virtually no regard for the conventions of YA literature—they have a story to tell, and they tell it exactly how they want to tell it. This book is timely, and relevant to the struggles in our world. It is starkly unique, and reminds us what feats can be accomplished when authors step outside of the boundaries of a genre. And it is memorable, and powerful, and a book that makes you think about things you might never have considered—and certainly never in the way that Emezi depicts them. Pet is pretty much a must-read for any reader of YA literature, because this book is on the absolute vanguard of the genre, and I have no doubt that it will open doors for future books—but even if it doesn't, the fact that such a brilliant work of art exists in the first place (and has a companion coming out in February!) should be cause for celebration, and respect, and awe.
My rating is: Stunning!