I loved a story – its texture and colors, the surprise and its depth. It caught me unawares; didn’t know what I was in for but once I started, the story would not let go. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is young adult novel I would recommend for grades 7 and up.
Set in the city of Lucille which prides itself on having eliminated monsters, the novel is populated with caring adults, curious young people and familiar structures – family, school, home. There are secrets plus a frightening history that should be remote but is not. The characters are black folks, people I can imagine in my family: big bold talkers, well-intentioned aunties and uncles, slick cousins. There are knowns and unknowns; patterns and assumptions, multiple lives unfolding at once.
And there’s a creature who arrives to enact a justice that it claims may not go unpunished. To accomplish its mission, it needs a human accomplice. The creature is Pet, teenager Jam is its accomplice. To be sure there are fantasy elements here but they interact reasonably with the rest of the story. Akwaeke Emezi is not offering us another planet, but a wider variety of ways of being for every single character. The names alone point to an almost poetic approach to building a cast: Jam, Bitter, Aloe, Redemption, Moss, Whisper, Beloved, Pet and Glass.
What struck me while reading was the way wisdom was dropped throughout the book, almost casually. Like in this exchange between Pet and Jam:
If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen…
…There is more. There is the unseen, waiting to be seen, existing only in the spaces we admit we do not see yet. p. 71
or when Jam’s mother, Bitter, explains how angels eventually rooted out the monsters of Lucille.
“It not easy to get rid of monsters,” she said. “The angels, they had to do things underhand, dark things”…”Hard things,” her mother continued. “You can’t sweet talk a monster into anything else when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.” p. 13
I have read and re-read these passages baffled by their profundity and charmed by their perfection. It’s the way these insights are woven into dialogue and emerge both authentic and extraordinary. This happens not just once or twice but literally every few pages. There’s a nugget, a gem – a trail of the author’s craft that pulls the reader in to join the hunt.
And the hunt – a mystery wrapped up in questions of morality and ethics. To whom are we responsible? Whom are we required to protect? Which of our mental-emotional weaknesses will lead us astray, away from the truth we must pursue?
As Pet, Redemption and Jam inch closer and closer to an unraveled mystery, there are exchanges that as a reader, nearly stopped me in my tracks. (Pet and Jam can speak telepathically.)
All knowledge is good knowledge, Pet said.
I don’t know if that’s true, Jam thought back. It doesn’t feel true right now.
Truth does not care if it feels true or not. It is true nonetheless. p. 140
Pet is a sumptuous read that might easily go unnoticed especially by adults. Dig into this book with kids or on your own, it will not disappoint. Author Akwaeke Emezi has given the world a gift of mystery that calls forth understanding in the space of about 200 pages. Imagining that the book is crafted for young audiences makes me so much more hopeful about the power resting in our future generations.