In This Genre-Bending Novel, You Better Believe the Monsters Are Real

“We are each other’s harvest.” For the people of the fictional city of Lucille, these words, written by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks in homage to the great Paul Robeson, are the battle cry of their revolution. “We are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond,” the verse continues. In Akwaeke Emezi’s beautiful, genre-expanding debut young adult novel, PET (203 pp., Make Me a World, $17.99; ages 12 and up) — longlisted for a National Book Award — the lines serve as both a clarion call and a reminder that utopian communities like Lucille are not only created, they must be fought for and maintained.

At the center of “Pet” is 15-year-old Jam, a trans girl who is loved and protected by her family, and an entire city. Lucille is more than a safe space for Jam. The city represents a sacrifice redeemed, a battle won — but not forever. Emezi opens “Pet” with an evocation of the struggle of good against evil. Once there were monsters everywhere in Lucille. There was a revolution and, in the end, the angels won. We’re reminded of the simplicity of it all: Monsters hurt people, angels can save us. Yet this idea also underlies the novel’s poetic complexity. We all know what monsters are, but, as Emezi puts it, “when you think you’ve been without monsters for so long, sometimes you forget what they look like.”

[Read our Q & A with Akwaeke Emezi]

The story eases into action when what appears to be a hideous chimera painted by Jam’s mother, Bitter, is conjured out of a two-dimensional canvas by a drop of Jam’s blood, landing in the seemingly perfect world of Lucille. The eyeless figure, complete with claws and horns, calls himself Pet. Thus begins a tender friendship between a monster and a girl who together set out to hunt a real monster, in a place where the angels have supposedly eradicated them all.

Jam, for her part, unwaveringly defines the parameters of her own existence. She is selectively mute, choosing to communicate in sign language and use her speaking voice only when necessary. At the age of 3, after being repeatedly misidentified as a “handsome little boy,” she exclaims that she is “Girl! Girl! Girl!” Aloe, her doting father, acquiesces by simply stating, “We didn’t know.” Hormone blockers and treatments ensue, followed by surgery when she turns 15, all with the support of her loving parents and the acceptance of her community.

There are few climactic moments in the story, and no roller-coaster ride of emotions. The first half of the novel is a slow and steady building of trust. A library takes center stage as Jam and Pet pore through old books and photos looking for clues about monsters from the not-so-distant past. Emezi gracefully paints a picture of Lucille with dialogue, food and a sense of close-knit, unconventional families and communities. The story is peppered with endearing Caribbean terms like “doux-doux” and dishes like salt fish with avocado. Emezi, who is Nigerian, conjures the African oral tradition with sweeping metaphors folded into an almost folkloric rendering of some of humanity’s harshest truths.

The people of Lucille are black, they are steeped in culture, they love one another and they are safe. However, that love and safety must be earned time and time again. It requires fearless honesty and the imaginative vision of a girl who believes the seemingly impossible: that monsters, real monsters, are still lurking, even when the world wants to shield you from the truth. “Pet” defies genre, yet it is deeply familiar in its message that we have to believe a better world is possible, and that we create both our monsters and our angels.

With its nods to black women writers — Gwendolyn Brooks’s words anchor the story in purpose and meaning, a book by the pioneering fantasy author N. K. Jemisin is mentioned as a bedtime story, and the city of Lucille evokes the poet Lucille Clifton and even, perhaps, Toni Morrison’s hometown, Lorain, Ohio — it is also a love letter to artists and the childlike imagination with which they are in constant dialogue. “Pet” is a nesting doll of creative possibilities, very much like children themselves, the angels among us.

An earlier version of this review misspelled the name of Toni Morrison’s hometown. It is Lorain, Ohio, not Lorraine.

Ibi Zoboi’s books for young readers include the novels “American Street” and, most recently, “My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich.”

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