The first novel by Toronto writer Leah Bobet, Above is a remarkable and in some ways brilliant book. It’s a Young Adult novel that doesn’t condescend to its audience, and doesn’t shy away from complexity of diction or worldbuilding. It’s a considerable achievement stylistically and thematically, a strong debut that promises much for Bobet’s future. Not every aspect of the book is equally successful, perhaps, but the things that work are the important things.
The story follows Matthew, a young storyteller born and raised in a community of outcasts who live under the streets of Toronto (the city’s not named, but if you’re familiar with it you can identify it from street names and the like — to say nothing of the cover). This community, Safe, is home to people who have strange powers and deformities: Curses. Matthew has scales over part of his body. Jack flickers with lightning. Whisper talks to ghosts. Atticus, the leader of Safe, has crablike pincers instead of hands. In creating Safe and its inhabitants, Bobet’s acknowledged taking some inspiration from the Beauty and the Beast TV show; personally, I found it reminiscent of the Morlocks in Chris Claremont’s run of X-Men.
Matthew’s trying to convince a troubled, Cursed girl named Ariel to live with him in Safe. But Safe’s more and less than it appears; an old crime comes back to haunt it, and Matthew, Ariel, and a few other survivors have to flee up to the frightening world Above. There, they’ll try to understand what happened, and work out what to do next — if they can stay together. If they can survive.
Bobet works an incredible thematic density into this plot. The story’s about community, and about sanctuary. But also about storytelling, and the myths that a community shares. It’s an investigation of what a community really is, then, and what makes a home — what the difference is between a sanctuary and a home, and what really is Safe, and how we see all these things through the lens of stories. It’s also therefore about secrets and lies, and about hidden relationships; about what is said and unsaid. It is about the things that aren’t told to children, and how children come to learn those things as they grow, and how those secrets can shape their lives whether they know it or not. It’s about the ways of the world, I think, and how we learn them as we grow, as we find our place in the world or else make that place for ourselves. Which is to say that in the end it comes back again to community, and the interstices between communities; how ethnicity and class and gender identity, the stories we tell ourselves (or are told) about who we are, can subtly and not-so-subtly shape a group as it forms itself. So it’s about identities, guises, and how we choose to fit in, how we Pass, as the people of Safe call pretending to fit in with the world Above. The story is therefore again about communication, and it’s notable that many of the gifts of the people of Safe are for communication — with stories, with ghosts, with shadows or bees or lightning.
All of which is to say that the themes of the story are interrelated in a way that defies explanation or compartmentalisation. This thematic interrelation creates a density to the book, a truly multifaceted reading experience. It’s unobtrusive; Bobet doesn’t drown you with ideas. It all emerges naturally from events and description and character. And from imagery, from the way a flash of lightning or a flicker of a match can carry similar symbolic freight — light standing, iridescent and ambiguous, against shadows and darkness. Above all, though, this density emerges from the voice in which the story’s told.
Matthew narrates the story in the first person, and his use of language is one of the most intriguing parts of the novel. He has a natural gift with words, but comes out of an unusual background with no formal schooling. Bobet creates a rich style for him, heavy with slang and rhythmic cadence and unexpected images. It reads a bit like Huckleberry Finn; or, to use a more genre-oriented point of comparison, a bit like Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker books. Not too much like those books, but a bit.
Consider the following, part of a story that Matthew tells giving us the background of his friend Jack:
It started raining after a bit, and Jack thought they really did yell up a storm, shivering wet in his T-shirt along the roadside that nobody drove on ‘cause the town was so far from everything. It thundered like tractor engines over and over and he got scared, thought about finding somewhere to hide ‘til the storm got done. He never thought about turning back, though — he’s careful to say that every time: I never once thought to turn myself back.
But he hesitated, stopped for a minute on the flat roadway in the flat land, where he was the tallest thing for a little ways.
And the lightning kissed him bone to bone and he wasn’t there for a while.
Now given that this is a story Matthew tells us, you can see how effectively Bobet lets him use language; the way, for example, she lets him build a rhythm through repetition (“flat roadway in the flat land”) and then lets it fall away (“for a little ways”) in order to build to a punch line: “And the lightning kissed him bone to bone and he wasn’t there for a while.” You don’t know exactly what that line means, what it is to be kissed bone to bone by lightning. Does lightning have bones? Or does the kiss bind all Jack’s own bones with lightning? It’s the right kind of perplexing, a hinting at mystery — and whatever happened to Jack on that flatland road, surely it was mysterious. Bobet (or Matthew, whichever you prefer) brings the phrase back at least twice more in the course of the book, both times at very well-chosen points, recalling that mystery, that strange union of man and lightning. The diction and imagery isn’t just a stylistic affectation. It’s a deep structural quality, and one Bobet handles well.
It does seem to me that not everything in the book’s handled quite that capably. Notably, the plot’s a little weak. Specifically, the structure feels imbalanced. Once the characters find themselves Above, Matthew’s focus becomes divided between, on the one hand, being with Ariel, and on the other, working with the other survivors of Safe to find out what happened and what force they’re really up against. That’s not necessarily a problem, but I felt that Matthew’s love for Ariel came through much more clearly than his interest in returning to Safe. As a result, there was an emotional intensity in the scenes having to do with Ariel that was lacking in the other scenes — which tended to be more important to the narrative, as it’s in those scenes that we learn about secrets that go back to the founding of Safe. While they’re still interesting, Matthew seems more a dispassionate observer in these sections of the book, whereas you convincingly feel his drive as he searches for or interacts with Ariel.
This was odd to me; however important Ariel was to him, surely the destruction of the only home Matthew ever knew would be at least as important. But there’s an emotional charge that’s missing. Granted, he’s interacting at these points with familiar adult authority figures, which isn’t so much the case in his scenes with Ariel. Still, he seems to be merely on the edge of events in these more plot-centred portions of the story, accompanying other characters only because the narrative demands it. These passages feel aimless, even when things are happening and important secrets revealed; and they feel disconnected from the passages with Ariel, as though Matthew’s living two stories at the same time, but only really inhabiting one.
Overall, Matthew’s a fairly passive character. There is a point where he seems to shed that passivity, first extorting information by the threat of violence and then getting into a physical confrontation; I suppose you could see these scenes as points where Matthew turns a corner as a character, driven by his love for Ariel to grow up and be more self-assertive. But I found myself wondering how likely these scenes actually were. Matthew’s described as physically slight; how does he intimidate someone so simply? And then when violence does come … it seems very easy for him, psychologically and physically. (I wondered, in fact, if there was some aspect of his Curse that helped him in the fight, but I didn’t see any hint of that in the text; I wondered also if he was hiding the whole truth about these things, but found no hint of that either.)
It’s interesting that Matthew’s apparently asexual as well. He’s seventeen, but never clearly expresses a physical want for Ariel. It’s possible we’re meant to assume that he’s trying to get that desire across subtextually; if so, I can only say it wasn’t at all apparent to me. I found it simpler to read him as a heteroromantic asexual — romantically but not sexually attracted to the opposite gender (in fairness, that’s how I self-identify, so I may be biased). The point is that Ariel’s sexual desires aren’t explored much either; and the way the community around Matthew treats sex doesn’t come into the story that I can see. For a book largely driven by the passion of two teenagers, it adds up to a strange lack, especially when the story’s otherwise fairly perceptive about gender politics.
I think there’s probably a good argument to be made that Matthew’s character is the real weak point of the book; that the sense of imbalance in the plot comes from something not fully realised in the main character. In a sense, this is surprising, if not paradoxical. His voice, his perspective, is so strongly captured that you expect his character to be fully-worked. Maybe it is; maybe I’m not giving the book enough credit. But as I read I felt as though I was hearing a point of view, not a person. As though there were choices that were not being made, not being faced.
Could it be that Matthew was deliberately ducking away from his responsibilities to the remains of Safe? Or that he as a narrator was deliberately choosing to present things in this way, leading up to a conclusion that he could depict as one he was forced into rather than one he chose for himself? I suppose. The book seems complex enough that I can’t discount these possibilities out of hand. All I can say is that I couldn’t find compelling evidence in the text to support these ideas. Matthew, to cut it short, never came alive as anything more than a voice; and, as a result, the plot never quite cohered, never quite felt like a unity.
This may help explain a touch of predictability to the end of the book. Characters signposted as good, or worth trusting, come together when they have no real reason to. A return to Safe happens, it seems, less because the characters have learned something new driving them to take action than because it’s time for them to do this thing for the story to continue as it must. Matthew goes through a trial which you might expect, and makes a decision that seems, in his telling, to be a formality — though this abrogation of responsibility seems to me to be a function of how things are told by the storyteller, and possibly a hint that his maturation is still not complete, that there are things about himself that he still can’t look at closely.
On the other hand, the conclusion does resolve the themes of the book quite well, including an integration of Safe and Above that felt like a genuine resolution to the questions the story was posing. That’s important, I think, because it points up the fact that the themes develop over the course of the story; their exploration is in fact a vital part of the structure of the book. For all the beauty and flash of the language, it’s that thematic intelligence, that structural savvy, that really makes the book work.
You can see it in the shapes of the chapters. The story’s structured so that each chapter ends with the Tale of one of the characters, their background as told by Matthew. That’s a difficult structure to make work; handled even slightly wrongly, it could mean an interruption of the narrative at crucial points. Instead, it works beautifully, as the tales reflect on what came before, and show Matthew’s growing awareness of the inherent uncertainty of the world. If I’ve seemed to often reflect on the reliability of Matthew as a narrator, it’s in part because the stories he tells become more uncertain, more provisional, as the book goes along — we’re shown how untrustworthy stories are, how they have to be re-examined and revised when needed if we want to treat them as history. We’re taught to trust the tale, not the teller.
Overall, as I say, the book’s a success due to its structural and thematic intelligence, and due to Bobet’s facility with language. The style’s not only attractive in itself but also returns in an unforced and wholly natural way to the basic themes of the novel, moving them forward, developing them and interlacing them. Above is a strong and subtle book, and a promising start to a new writer’s career.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.