It was on my second run I found Ariel. She wasn’t Above. It was on the way back we found her, huddled down in a corner that was halfway fallen in,down in the old sewers where most people don’t ever get.I wouldn’t have seen her except she was shaking just the tiniest bit, vibrating like sharks or bee’s-wing; moving because things that don’t move fall to the deepest depths and die.
In Matthew’s world, there are two places: Above, belonging to the regular people and doctors and monsters called whitecoats, and Safe, belonging to the Sick, beasts like Matthew, below ground. In the sewers beneath the city Above, Matthew and his friends have peace and sanctuary. Everyone in Safe has a story, having escaped from the terrors of the whitecoats Above, and every beast—like Matthew with his scaled back and clawed feet, or Ariel with her bee’s wings sprouting and falling from her back—has a home in Safe. All save one, named Corner, who killed other beasts years before. When Corner comes back to Safe with an army of Shadow monsters, Matthew and Ari’s home is destroyed, and the few survivors must leave their sanctuary for the world Above. Here, Matthew must discover the truth of the Whitecoats, of Safe and of his beloved Ariel if he and his people are to survive.
Recently nominated for the Andre Norton Award by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), Above is Leah Bobet’s debut novel and an alternately beautiful and frustrating experience. On the positive end of the spectrum, Above is a gorgeously written book, with its hauntingly sparse and strange prose. Narrated in the first person through the eyes of Matthew, known as “Teller” to his people in Safe, the book’s greatest strength is its surreal, dreamlike feel. Matthew has lived his whole life underground and only has the stories of others to understand the world. As such, he has taken on the mantle of storyteller to pass on the knowledge of Above and Safe to others. This kind of oral recounting of history changes and shifts with the teller, so Matthew’s interpretations of Above, of his fellow characters and of reality itself is kaleidoscopic and bizarre—in a good way. The voice Bobet creates for her young male narrator is perfect in all its confusing, whimsical glory.
That said, Above’s strong narrative voice and stilted prose is also its undoing: What this book has in style, it lacks in substance. The actual meat of the book (that is, the conflict that has wiped out Safe and driven its survivors Above) should be the element that drives the story forward. And yet developing the particulars of the story or defining the world is sacrificed for developing voice and atmosphere, and as such nothing really happens for a good majority of the book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the lack of any concrete answers or development is frustrating in the extreme. And, as the book goes on and we learn the truth about Safe’s founder, Atticus, and his lover Corner, Ariel’s story and Matthew’s final choices...I can’t say that the payoff is worth it.
Above is a beautiful, melancholy kind of experiment. I love the idea of the book and certain elements of the writing, but as a cohesive whole? The excessive style does not make for a substantive read (in fact, if this was a novella or a short story, I feel like it would have been much more successful).
In Book Smugglerish, an apathetic 5 brittle bee’s wings out of 10.