“Matthew has loved Ariel from the moment he found her in the tunnels, her blond hair shining and her bee’s wings falling away. They live together in Safe, a refuge deep underground for those fleeing the harsh city Above – as does Whisper, who speaks to ghosts, and Atticus, who has thick claws for hands, and Jack Flash, who can shoot lightning from his fingertips.
But one terrifying night, an old enemy invades Safe with an army of shadows, and only Matthew, Ariel, and a few friends escape Above. Forced to survive in the most dangerous place he can imagine, Matthew strives to unravel the mystery of the shadows’ powers and Safe’s own secret history. For he knows he must find a way to remake Safe – not just for himself and his friends, but for Ariel, who’s again faced with a life she fled, and who needs him more than ever before.”
Above is Leah Bobet's first novel, although I’ve been following her work online for a while now, given she’s been publishing short fiction and poetry since approximately 2001. Those seeking her earlier work might like to consult her online bibliography for short fiction here. Alternatively, samples of her recent poetry can be found here and here. She also maintains a blog here.
In Above we’re introduced to Matthew, the boy with lion’s feet and gills (the legacy of his father and mother respectively) on supply duty prior to Sanctuary Night - the night when those wanting the sanctity of Safe’s quarters has their right to live there reconfirmed. Matthew is the Teller for Safe, the one responsible for collecting everyone’s stories and recounting them subsequently. Safe is populated by the unwanted from Above (essentially, our own world and specifically the city of Toronto); the Sick or mentally ill, those marginalised by society and the Cursed.
Before long, Safe is raided by a shadow army and Matthew and a few fellow escapees, including Ariel, a girl who turns into a bee when threatened, are forced into the world Above, aided by the sympathetic Doctor Marybeth. Life in Safe being the only one Matthew has ever known, this forces him to confront the reality of the history and Tales provided to him by others, whilst seeking a way to retake his home. The Tales are cleverly woven into the narrative and assist, rather than detract from, our understanding of the overriding narrative arc – as well as aiding in our grasp upon the characters as we navigate the world of Above with them.
Above is populated by precise and poetic prose, with clear care and attention paid to drafting. Ultimately, this rewards the dedicated reader with a complex and far reaching story in which there are no simple solutions to the problems presented in the aftermath of the raid on Safe, nor trite “happily ever afters” for those seeking to re-establish their broken community and save themselves in the process.
The social commentary related to the marginalised within society and characterisation emphasising this aspect of the novel is similarly adept. Thus, Corner is far from the maligned villain suspected at the outset of the narrative and whom the inhabitants of Safe have been taught habitually to fear. Similarly, Ariel provides an effective illustration of psychiatric institutionalisation, warts and all. The premise of hope in help within its walls depends upon the aid of good doctors, such as Doctor Marybeth, as opposed to the influence of the previously destructive “Whitecoats”. The move, however, is when all’s said and done, one towards healing and renewal. This, then, is the image with which we are left as reader. That of regeneration and survival. The move towards progression. Ultimately, this makes Above a story of humanity and all the more real for it.