by Leah Bobet
Above is a deeply human tale. Bobet takes human problems, human hates, human sadnesses and disappointments, and human hopes, and wraps them up in a jarringly sparse, backwards prose about an underground community of Freaks, who wish for nothing more than to be left alone.
Above is a challenge, evidenced by the numerous reviewers who’ve abandoned ship before they ever set sail. Which is a shame. Because while this may be categorized under paranormal and science fiction, it’s really no more than a disguise. Bobet’s story hits much closer to home than might be expected.
The prose. It is the gift and curse. The dialect is disordered and requires deciphering. Basic rules of grammar does not apply here. Our protagonist, Matthew, is a young man born underground, in Safe. A Freak-built safe-house for those who have gills, lion’s feet, and crab claws; for those who speak to ghosts, who turn into bees, and who turn into shadows. The language is theirs; it is for them to use, and us to understand. It is specifically distinct of Matthew, who does not know above-ground talk. He grew up in darkness and isolation and so his words are altered; he is both innocent and unrefined in the way he thinks and describes.
Bobet blurs the lines in speech structure, and that is why it is difficult to join her rhythm, because you are constantly re-reading to re-confirm if what you understood is really what was meant. It isn’t lyrical, but blunt – short. And yet, at times, it hits the point harder than anything you’ve read.
He yells, straightens up with a swear that tells me he is the one, he’s the one that broke my Ariel, broke her down made her Freak made her scared of sweet words or touching so I had to walk slow and careful, talk soft and always be patient and never just kiss her like I wanted to. Took away her want to be kissed. (That’s an easy one.)
The manner in which the supernatural aspect of this novel was presented is interesting. No explanation is given as to how these Freaks came about. There is simply the society, and in this society, some have genetic disorders. This downplays the fact that these people are creatures instead of Normal. It grazes over their maladies and conditions. Because what Bobet focuses on is their plight. It’s their pain that is sad, not that they were born different.
The emotional crux of this story is belonging. These people have been mistreated, bullied as children, cast out as adults. Some were surrendered by their own family, some by their lovers. They’ve dug their way underground, underneath the life of Above, to find shelter and comfort. When that is taken from them, they disperse into chaos and they panic because they are exposed. But it isn’t just characters with deformation. Bobet incorporates cultural and racial prejudice, maltreatment (in multiple forms) towards patients of mental disorder, and the moral discussion over appropriate medical mandate.
Matthew may appear bland and almost like an Everyman, but only because he isn’t as flavoured in ways that make other central characters entertaining or memorable. He is rather a quiet hero. He doesn’t ask for applause or girls gushing over his noble looks. He stands for himself and his principles, and that is enough in my book. Matthew, or Teller as he’s also known, is the Tale keeper of his people. He is a living, breathing storyteller, and it is his responsibility to pass on the histories of their struggles as well as their achievements. He represents duty and stalwartness, always longing for home and determined to restore it for his people. Mainly, perhaps, because he had not experienced being wronged. Because this also explores the bitter side of persecution. The fact that not everyone comes through the other end in acceptance and understanding. It talks about the hate and the anger that blinds one against their injustice, and the eventual price one is in danger of paying if one does not let go.
Above carried depth I didn’t expect…and truthfully, depth I didn’t know it had until I finished. And even more truthfully, more depth than I was probably able to grasp. There are obstacles along the way. Because of the language, some parts were a bit obscure and ambiguous. Ariel was occasionally frustrating – and just like I predicted, she was indeed a beautiful mess. The plot is substantially smaller than the word dystopia makes it out to be. But which, again, lends itself to Bobet’s aim of telling a story about ourselves, rather than one about monsters and medical experiments gone awry. It could’ve been more here, and it could’ve been more there. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t epic. But much like the Freaks in this book, once you look past the debris, it really isn’t all that peculiar.
Rated 4 out of 5 stars
This review also appears on Goodreads.