Release date: September 10, 2019
A refreshing #OwnVoices story offering a highly relevant take on the concept of angels and monsters, Pet proves that Akwaeke Emezi can write for younger audiences just as well as they can for adults.
Pet is, at its heart, a story about finding and eliminating evil, even—or especially—when that evil goes unnoticed by most. Jam, a selectively-nonverbal black trans girl, finds herself caught in a moral quandary when a terrifying creature climbs out of one of her mother’s paintings and into the real world. This creature, who calls itself Pet, tells Jam that it has come to hunt a monster. Jam is confused at first, because in the town of Lucille, all monsters—the abusers, the corrupt billionaires, the racist police officers, the sexual predators, and so on—have been eliminated. There should be no monsters to hunt; the mere existence of one means that the supposed safety of her home is a lie. Even more upsetting is the fact that Pet says the monster resides in the house of Jam’s best friend, Redemption. How could there be a monster in such a happy household? Should she tell Redemption about it? And how do you hunt a monster when you don’t even know what, or who, it is?
I did feel a little misled by this book’s categorization. It’s listed as YA, but it felt very much on the young side of that age bracket. Yes, the protagonist is sixteen, and there is some mention of mature topics like child abuse and rape, but the discussions tastefully avoid most details, and Jam herself feels pretty naïve for a teenager. Some of that, I’m sure, is a result of the safe and sterile society she lives in, but I couldn’t help feeling that this novel would be better suited for a late middle-grade reader.
Now, don’t take that the wrong way. There were plenty of things I loved about this book. For one, the diversity is spectacular, both in its inclusivity and in its handling of intersectional identities. The fact that Jam is trans is not just casually dropped once and never mentioned again; she has multiple moments where she realizes her estrogen implant feels cold, or when she thinks about how her life could have gone so differently if her parents hadn’t allowed her to transition when she first insisted, at age three, that she was a girl, not a boy. It isn’t aggressively forced on the reader, nor is it a focal point of the book, but it is a facet of her character that is just there for token diversity points. This is the kind of trans rep I want to see more of: where trans characters can have stories that don’t center around their gender identity, but that also don’t ignore the ways that identity impacts them.
Racial identity is also dealt with exceptionally well; Jam’s parents speak English with distinct linguistic patterns that echo their immigrant status, and when they cook, they make traditional Caribbean dishes. Again, Emezi is able to make sure that characters’ identities are not forgotten but also not exploited. And there are casual allusions to other varied identities as well: Redemption has three parents, all married to each other, one of whom is nonbinary; and the librarian, Ube, is in a wheelchair.
Emezi’s use of language is what really allows this tale to flourish. The imagery is vivid without being excessively flowery, and Jam’s thought process is introspective without feeling self-indulgent. All the characters’ voices come across distinctly, from Pet’s tendency to use circular, repetitive language, to the dialects of Jam’s parents, to Redemption’s use of AAVE, to the distinctions Jam makes on when to sign her thoughts and when to voice them. That final element, Jam’s frequent use of sign language, brought an especially interesting element to the narrative, as she decided when and what was significant enough to necessitate the use of her voice aloud. Sometimes, things got confusing—Emezi did not have a good way to indicate the difference between Jam signing things and thinking them in her direct telepathic link to Pet—so the use of italics made it a little vague as far as who was speaking. That said, without using an outright different font to indicate thought-communication, I don’t know that they could have handled it any differently.
One more positive note: Jam’s relationships to everyone and everything around her are fascinating and fully realized, multi-dimensional connections. Her relationship with Redemption is seriously friendship goals, full of trust and the sort of instinctive understanding that comes with knowing a person for most of your life. Jam’s constant uncertainty on how much to involve him in the monster hunt, her acute awareness of how any of her choices could impact their friendship, felt incredibly real. Similarly, her relationship with her parents, including their unconditional love for each other, how readily they accepted her being trans even as a child, their willingness to talk about anything and everything, and her guilt over not telling them about her ongoing hunt, is both pleasantly simple and surprisingly nuanced. Jam’s psychic connection with Pet, and their frequent disagreement, presents an interesting exercise in self-awareness. And the odd connection Jam feels with her house, able to sense when things are wrong simply through vibrations in the floorboards, is a nice touch that enhances her intense connection with and innate understanding of the world.
However, I did get the feeling sometimes that this story was a rather predictable, parable-like tale. The plot was incredibly linear, none of it particularly surprising; even the identity of the monster, while not necessarily expected, is still not unexpected. As a narrative about the deceptive nature of evil and the blurred lines around who is truly bad and who is just misguided, about how even someone who seems so good can have dark secrets, it fulfills its function perfectly. But for a novel of two hundred pages, it could stand to have a little more substance, or some plot twists along the way.
As a whole, I highly recommend this read to anyone interested in #OwnVoices representation, the difficulty of discerning right from wrong, and the nuances of relationships. It is not a long read, nor is it perfect, but it is certainly impactful. And, in a time when so much in this world is confusing and scary, where there are monsters at every turn and even in high political offices, it is a necessary reminder that we are the ones who need to take change into our own hands.
TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNINGS: child abuse, rape, mention of racism and police brutality, graphic violence.
Thank you to the publisher for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.