Above, by Leah Bobet (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012, YA, 368 pages)
Apart from brief trips to the city above, Matthew has lived all his life in Safe, an underground sanctuary. He is the Teller of his community's history, keeping safe the stories of the strange band of freakishly different people with whom he lives--the leader, crab-claw armed Atticus, Whisper, who speaks with ghosts, Jack, who channels electricity, and others. Some can Pass briefly above, as Matthew can (his scales can't be seen beneath his shirt), and some who cannot. But Safe is a fragile place--there is a lie at the heart of the histories that Matthew tells, lurking like a time-bomb ready to destroy all that Matthew holds dear.
Dearest of all to him is the newest refugee from above--Ariel, who morphs into a bee when angered or distressed. Matthew loves her, and tries to heal her deep psychological wounds; he tries to learn her story, and keep her close in Safe. It doesn't work.
When the worst happens, and Safe is invaded by dark shadows, Matthew, Ariel, Whisper, and Jack are driven above ground. Their survival, and hope of recreating a sanctuary for themselves, and others like them, depends on finding out the dark truth behind the story of Safe.
Like Safe itself, Above is carefully built up of bits of story, layer upon layer. It is absorbing, and emotionally intense. Like a dream, it requires suspension of disbelief. At first I found Matthew's voice--slightly awkward, slightly alien, and unschooled--off putting, and I was confused, and skeptical of the logistics of Safe, and wanted some explanation about why all these mutations happened.
But I read on, and found the story so carefully particular in its construction of character and detail, and the progression toward "truth" so inexorable, that I was carried easily first into acceptance, and then into intent, almost desperate, interest. And now, having read it, my questions are much more philosophical--what price is safety worth? and how does the telling of the past shape the present? It became, in my mind, as much an extended metaphor as a straight story, and although I probably won't re-read it, it will stick in my mind just fine regardless. This was Leah Bobet's first book, and I'll definitely be reading her second!
It's not a fun, fast, cozy read. It was gripping and intense. It's not a stereotypical YA paranormal novel, in which beautiful, extraordinary people fall in love, and you know they'll end up together. Matthew and Ariel are, indeed, extraordinary, and not unbeautiful, but their painfully fragile relationship is not an escapist fantasy. If you are looking for a memorable, though-provoking read, give this one a try.
note on age: There isn't any sex or bad language, but the plot is achingly intense at times, the themes are for older readers, and there's some violence. Though the girl with wings on the cover might suggest a fairy story, it isn't, so I wouldn't give this to a pre-teen reader. On the other hand, it would be a good crossover to adults who shy away from YA books. Fans of Margaret Atwood, for instance, might enjoy it. That being said, my husband looked at the wings when I pressed him to read it and did not immediately pounce on the book.
(ARC received from the publisher)