#IMWAYR: Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi
Hey everyone! Today I am thrilled to be recommending an incredible, awe-inspiring, must-read YA novel: Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi.
Please note, this book is a young adult (YA) novel, and it contains mature content.
Also, this book is a prequel to Emezi's novel Pet, but the following review contains no spoilers of that book (which is pretty easy, considering this one is a prequel!).
|Add it on Goodreads|
Let's start off with the publisher's description of this book:
From National Book Award finalist Akwaeke Emezi comes a companion novel to the critically acclaimed PET that explores both the importance and cost of social revolution--and how youth lead the way.
After a childhood in foster care, Bitter is thrilled to have been chosen to attend Eucalyptus, a special school where she can focus on her painting surrounded by other creative teens. But outside this haven, the streets are filled with protests against the deep injustices that grip the city of Lucille.
Bitter’s instinct is to stay safe within the walls of Eucalyptus . . . but her friends aren’t willing to settle for a world that’s so far away from what they deserve. Pulled between old friendships, her artistic passion, and a new romance, Bitter isn’t sure where she belongs—in the studio or in the streets. And if she does find a way to help the revolution while being true to who she is, she must also ask: at what cost?
This timely and riveting novel—a companion to the National Book Award finalist Pet—explores the power of youth, protest, and art.
As I mentioned before, this book is a prequel to the YA novel Pet, which is one of the most brilliant, insightful, starkly unique books I've had the chance to read ever. That book follows Jam, a teenage girl, and Pet, a creature brought forth from a painting, in a city where monsters and injustices have supposedly been eliminated. This book, however, follows Jam's mother Bitter, herself a teenager during the events of this story, as she navigates a city where injustices haven't been eliminated—a truth she and everyone else knows all too well.
Prequels are hard to write well—after all, who cares about a story where you already know the ending? Well, Bitter isn't like that. Because despite everything we saw during the events of Pet, we really didn't learn how the injustices of the city of Lucille were resolved, or what "resolved" even truly meant—so Bitter is the rare prequel where you don't actually know at all how the story will end.
There truly are no other books like Pet or Bitter, and I know I cannot capture everything that makes these books exceptional, but I still have to try. Few YA novels ask the kinds of hard questions that Bitter asks, and I suspect it helps that Emezi started out as an enormously acclaimed adult author before bringing all they've learned to the YA world. This book imagines a world far too similar to our own, where corrupt politicians and businesspeople exact their will upon innocent people—the difference here is that they do not successfully distract people from their deeds by dividing them into quarreling factions. The movement that Bitter and the other people of Lucille watch as its members take to the streets is called Assata—imagine the spirit of Black Lives Matter, but the unity and hard-earned wisdom of a movement much older, surviving through sheer determination. It's not hard to imagine a movement like Assata in our world, if only luck and fate aligned to allow it to form.
In this aching city of Lucille, and as Bitter begins to question her place inside or outside of the movement when she has already survived so much as a foster child, several important questions begin to form, percolating before eventually coming to a head. One concerns activism: Are we obligated to fight for the greater good in a specific way, by risking our lives on the front lines? Or is there a place for other kinds of activism, such as self-expression—that is, art?
Another question concerns the means to our ends. How far can we—should we—go in order to effect change? Could ending one life be the brave, painful choice that spares countless other lives, or could killing a person set a dangerous precedent and leave no room for people to grow and change?
And the final question, which leads me into a little bit more discussion about this book's plot, concerns the ends themselves. We all want a better world—but what does that mean? Emezi brilliantly and implicitly answers this question through Bitter's characters and their relationships—the world we need to build is a world where people are free to love, to care for one another, to express themselves. And we cannot wait to build this world—we must begin building it, now, so that we know what we are fighting for. You might be surprised to find, in a book that might seem so dark and existential at first, that this story is full of light and love, contained within incredible character after incredible character. I'll give two examples—Bitter herself, whose past has scarred her but has not taken away her life force, her drive to create worlds and emotions through paintings, her ability to love and be loved once someone earns her trust. And Aloe, who seems so unlike Bitter at first, with his optimism and openness to Bitter's cynicism and wariness, but who contains that same passion that she does, an energy within him that soon worms its way into Bitter's heart as well.
Within the character relationships in this story, a whole new set of themes emerge. Bitter has conflicts with companions new and old, and you begin to wonder as the story goes on if such conflicts are not such a bad thing—as painful and destructive as they can be, they also seem to be a necessary side effect of passion, of truly caring about outcomes and about other people, and they serve as a chance to cut all the nonsense and refine one's self and relationships into their truest forms. Trust is also an important component of the story—Bitter has never had a place where she felt truly free to be herself, to exist without fear, until Eucalyptus, the unusual boarding school she now attends. But there can be no truly safe home in a city as volatile as Lucille, and soon the themes I mentioned earlier—of people changing and growing and whether or not we can forgive them, and allow them passage back into our lives—enter back into the story through an entirely different outlet.
Bitter, like Pet, is very short, clocking in at just 261 pages. Which seems almost absurdly short considering the depth and wisdom that is packed into this story, an amount of meaning most books could not cram into hundreds, nor thousands, of pages. In this story, Emezi somehow finds every essential question about the troubled societies we have built, and the relationships we struggle to maintain, and the vital interconnectedness of both, and they ask—and answer—every one of those questions within this story, as if Bitter was a brief handbook for how each of us should live our lives and rebuild our world. I want to return to the first question I mentioned, of activism and art's place in it—even after reading this book, I wonder if any work of art can truly have the widespread reach to genuinely affect the world. But what Bitter makes clear not necessarily within its plot, but through its very existence, is that art does not simply effect change through its scope. Art effects change in each of the people that experience it—as few people as that may be—by reminding us what is worth fighting for. Bitter reminds us what is worth fighting for in this life, and in doing so, it changes each of us, and thereby changes every person we encounter, and thereby, little by little, changes the whole world.
(And I don't love to end on this note, but I don't think you should start this duology by reading Bitter—I do think it is the stronger of the two stories, and I think you could absolutely understand the events of it without reading Pet, but I think Pet itself thrives on revealing some of the mystery of Lucille, whereas Bitter builds on those revelations now that they are explicit. And I will say, Pet—with its bazillion awards on its cover, its incredibly unique plot, and its 208-page length—is definitely still an incredible place to begin your journey with these characters, in this world. So I would encourage you to start off by reading Pet—you can read my review here if you would like—and then returning to Bitter and discovering the foundations you didn't know underpinned Pet all along.)
My rating is: Stunning!