The city of Lucille is set up as a near-future utopia where Jam’s generation is the first to be born after all the monsters were vanquished by the angels and everything is good even though older generations like Jam’s parents still remember what a world full of monsters what like. And what were the monsters? Just like the angels, they were equal parts people and ideas, so one monster might be a corrupt politician and another might be the entire idea of transphobia. However, the angels still walk the earth. One of them is Hibiscus, the uncle of Jam’s best friend Redemption and a martial artist who teaches people how to fight.
Emezi’s portrait of Lucille is beautiful and makes me feel hopeful for a better future we can all fight to reach, but the thing is that there is a monster in Lucille no matter how badly the adults want to believe there isn’t. If there weren’t a monster, Jam wouldn’t have been able to summon Pet from one of her mother’s paintings the way her mother once did during the war against the monsters. Pet is there to hunt down the monster with Jam–and that monster is in Redemption’s house.
Pet is a novel dominated by florid language and highly relevant themes, not the plot. If you step back and think about the sequence of events, the hunt for Lucille’s monster is actually over with very quickly. With some of the prose trimmed down, the book would be solidly in novella territory. While that prose is often gorgeous, it’s sometimes overwritten in such a way that it pads out the book count and just plain bad on rare occasions. One line that stood out to me is “Jam straightened herself and tried to inject calm under the skin of her face” from page 114.
Injecting calm under the skin of one’s face. I just. My intense fear of needles makes that imagery particularly horrifying in a way it isn’t meant to be.
In my opinion, Pet should have won the 2019 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Maybe the nonfiction book about 1919 that won it this year is great–I don’t know, I haven’t read it and don’t plan to–but I can’t imagine it’s as good as Pet. This is a novel I adore as an adult and needed as a child who encountered her own monster and didn’t know what to do about it. It’s a reminder that we must never forget what the monsters look like because even when we think we’ve beaten them, they’ll be back the instant we forget them.