Leah Bobet’s novel, Above, caught me off-guard. I know Bobet’s work only from the online collaborative fiction series Shadowunit. That was enough to let me know I wanted to buy her novel. But it wasn’t enough to fully prepare me for the sheer freaking skill on display.
SPOILERS FOR THE NOVEL ABOVE FOLLOW.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.
OKAY, IT’S ON YOUR HEAD NOW.
Above starts out with the destruction of Safe, home to our narrator, Teller. Safe, an underground home to Freaks and Sick, is invaded by Killer, a Freak previously cast out by Safe’s leader, Atticus. The rest of the story is, on one level, the tale of how Teller and other refugees from Safe return to their home and defeat Killer.
I began the book with a sense that this was an okay story. Perfectly fine. The plot didn’t quite hold together, and a number of the character motivations were weak, but, okay, whatever. I was a little bit disappointed, honestly. And then, about a third of the way through, the light dawned.
Oh, I thought. She’s doing it on purpose.
What Teller finds out, what we the readers find out, is that this narrative is false. Or, rather, that everything in Teller’s life is more complicated than he was ever led to believe. It’s his job, Teller, to listen to everyone’s stories are re-tell them for the community. He is the public record, the history text of his community. Teller, who is around eighteen years old, is not familiar with the idea that history is written by the victors.
One of the most important conflations in the story is that of Freak — people with paranormal powers, with crab-claw hands, with gills — with those who are Sick — folks with schizophrenia, or Tourette’s. In Safe, the subterranean community of Teller’s birth, all the members are Freaks. They are born this way and deserve the right to live their lived unmolested by medical science. Yet Teller finds, when he and his friends escape to Above, that some of the Freaks are also Sick.
There is a fundamental tension in this story — what non-typical conditions does a person have a right to retain? Do you have a right to talk to ghosts? Do you have a right to remain intersex? Do you have a right to refuse treatment for schizophrenia? Teller’s process of learning to see these cases, of learning to distinguish one from the next, is one ongoing thread. The revelations later in the book redeem some of the confusions in the opening section.
Another theme is that of the unreliable narrator. You could say that that’s less of a theme and more of the entire point. Teller is a strictly reliable narrator. He tells all truth as best he knows how. Except … except he can’t because he has been lied to. And one of the lies he tells starts a war.
With each new story we hear as readers, the complex web of relationships in Above makes more sense. The actions are explained by comprehensible, complex motivations. People struggle to exceed their limitations, sometimes succeeding and often failing. And once we understand the motivations, successes turn, retroactively, into failures. And failure into a kind of success.
The third major theme of Above is that of family. The relationships in Safe are feudal — obligation and debt. So are the relationships in Beatrice’s squat. This is the only kind of family Teller and Ariel have known — yet it’s exactly these systems that are complicit in abuse of differing sorts. When we finally do find out Corner’s history, hir relationship with hir mother is unexpectedly strong, good, kind, and loving. Unexpected because Corner has been the villain of the piece all along.
It’s the reversing of Atticus and Corner that made the whole book fall into place for me. A reversal of hero and villain that didn’t strip away or undo any of the good Atticus had done or the evil Corner was inflicting. To point out that villains have reasons for their acts is a familiar thread. What I found far more daring, more noteworthy, is the way Bobet frames Atticus’s heroism. Atticus is driven to heroism by fear and insecurity just as Corner is driven to villainy by loss.
I. Love. That.
That comparison, that theme, that whatever you want to call it — Ms. Bobet, I love that part. Good on you.
Skip Above if you dislike unreliable narrators or you prefer your heroes untarnished.
Read Above if you like your urban fantasy to be urban — warts and all — and vampire-free, if you enjoy puzzles and complexity in narrative.
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