South Africa: Book Review | Pet By Akwaeke Emezi

book review

This debut young adult novel is impactful in exploring a fractured society that denies its splintered state while allowing readers to imagine a world that is safe and brimming with community.

Many may think young adult novels are rooted in fantasy or thriller narratives. But over the past few years, there has been a significant proliferation of young adult fiction that centres itself in marginal experiences and conflict. Consider The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower and, most recently, Who Put This Song On by Morgan Parker.

This narrative shift is a reflection of the change in social consciousness in the past few years, during the time of #FeesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter. Young people are ravenous for stories that meditate on their multifaceted worlds, that reflect their otherness but also offer the imagination of new possibilities. And Akwaeke Emezi's PET offers just that.

Emezi's astonishingly haunting debut novel, Freshwater, opens with, "I have lived many lives inside this body. I lived many lives before they put me in this body. I will live many lives when they take me out of it." These words not only prime you for the riotous story about to unfold but with their poetic entry, Emezi lets you know that you have entered the realm of a formidable writer. Thematically, Freshwater is about fractured selves. But debut young adult novel PET explores how fractured societies are in denial of this splintered state.

In PET we meet Jam, a young girl who lives in a town called Lucille, where there are no more monsters as the angels rid the town of them before Jam was born. Lucille is a town forged by love and acceptance. The "monsters" are representative of all we consider evil: rapists, child molesters, thieves and so on. It appears that the town is free of this evil. But after the appearance of Pet, a creature whose mandate is to hunt monsters, Jam starts questioning everything she has been told about her reality while the two of them hunt for a monster that is supposedly hiding in her friend Redemption's house.

Lucille is an interesting imagination on the author's part. They imagine this town where there are no prisons, no police. It's a town populated by black people from the diaspora with an angel for a mayor. This creative decision is one they take to imagine a world without police brutality, a world where blackness exists freely and one where different gender and sexual identities exist as a norm. It is a potential utopia.

Jam is a trans girl and her best friend Redemption has three parents, one of whom is non-binary. Jam is selectively silent and uses sign language as an additional form of communication.

Through this world-building, Emezi undertakes the work of restorative social justice by creating a template of possibility for the future. "You can't make a new world if you can't imagine it first," they said in a discussion with artist, writer and Make Me a World imprint creative director Christopher Myers. PET colourfully and profoundly imagines this world as a potential reality.

Community and love

This new possibility would not be feasible without a strong sense of community. Lucille as a town is principled on ubuntu: there is safety, plentiful sharing and a viscous love throughout the story. Emezi beckons us to consider the importance of community if we are to change the world, with the power of love, acceptance and family able to usurp any socially corrosive sensitivities. Even the town's motto reflects this. "We are each other's harvest. We are each other's business. We are each other's magnitude and bond," as Emezi intertextually draws on the words of a Gwendolyn Brooks poem.

PET is also about love. Emezi offers up different articulations of love, especially through Jam's friendship with Redemption. Their palpable intimacy is more about companionship and sharing a human experience - you can sense Jam's love for her friend when Pet declares that the evil monster is in Redemption's house. Romance is absent, but their feelings of kinship run profoundly deep.

Redemption's parents are a polyamorous triad. This is not a main aspect of the book, but the love between these characters feels uncomplicated and the normalcy of its representation is heartening. Jam's parents are written with equally careful consideration to depict a love that enables Jam to exist in the way she does.

There is love, too, between Jam and Pet. It's a shaky start as Pet should not exist in Lucille. But as their friendship develops, this enormous razor-chested creature becomes Jam's friend. As a character, there is an abrasiveness and an I'm-here-to-do-a-job disposition about Pet, yet there is an endearing quality to him, too. Pet is a manifestation of love, he would not have materialised were it not for love. The creature exists to hunt monsters, to protect, even though he looks terrifying.

A novel for now

When asked why they wrote PET, Akwaeke says they imagined themselves as a young person now and what they would want to read.

"If I was a young person now, what things would be bothering me? What things would I be thinking about? Justice happened to be one of them. More so this living in the world we are living now where everything is on fire and for a while, a good amount of people have been invested in pretending that everything is not on fire," they told Myers.

This social denialism drives the narrative in PET. The adults in Lucille are invested in peddling the idea that monsters are dead and gone, yet Pet would not have appeared if this were true. Denialism efficiently enables unequal social structures to continue blooming. In Jam's world, denialism on the part of adults is frustrating as it makes her appear insane, it isolates her and allows for monsters to continue harming in the dark because adults refuse to see the truth.

Emezi's writing is undeniably strong, but at moments it feels oversimplified. Perhaps it is because the book is a young adult novel, but there is restraint in the writing. It is evident that language is important to the author, but PET lacks the passion of Freshwater.

A world of safety

The feeling that the book is a deliberate social commentary is unshakeable and at times in PET it feels unnecessary and as though it is stealing from the story. Again, it's possibly the young adult genre, but as much as Lucille is a fully developed concept, some of the characters lack complexity in personhood. Everyone is just so darn good, although there is a possibility that this was intentional.

Still, Emezi has penned a story able to hold your curiosity. Their aim to write a novel that situates a black trans girl in a world of safety is purposeful and important in archiving the marginal experience. As a young adult novel, Jam's character and the entire town of Lucille are impactful for their representation and altering narratives of blackness, queerness and love.

In an interview with The New York Times newspaper, Emezi says they had to write this story about a black trans girl that was not steeped in pathology and violence. "I was like, if I'm writing something for black trans kids, what spell do I want to cast? I want to cast a spell where a black trans girl is never hurt."

PET is a tremendous debut young adult novel and Emezi further solidifies themselves as an important contemporary writer. The book has a vital message to share because it permits us to imagine a world that is safe and brimming with community. Emezi attempts to create a world to which we can aspire, a road map to a world where you can be whatever you want and be supported.

They further remind us to open our eyes and interrogate our realities instead of turning away from what ails our societies. PET may be aimed at young adults, but there is value in everyone reading the book for the restorative aims to which many can relate.

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