Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Published by Faber & Faber, 2019
Rating: ⭐ ⭐
In this singular new offering from Emezi, we follow Jam, a teenage girl who lives in a world that has supposedly rid itself of “monsters”. She soon finds herself confronted, however, with a strange creature that has emerged from one of her mother’s paintings. Calling itself Pet, it tells Jam that a monster lives among them once again and that they must hunt it down together. Worse still, it tells her that the monster lurks within the home of Jam’s best friend, Redemption.
It’s frustrating when you have such mixed feelings towards a book that is so widely revered – especially when you hoped to love it too. With that in mind, I’ll start by talking about Pet’s merits, because I do think it has a lot to admire. It becomes clear to the reader very quickly precisely what kind of “monster” we’re dealing with, and Emezi strikes an excellent balance between due reverence for the big themes being tackled and an avoidance of gratuity – especially considering the book’s relatively young target audience.
With Pet being a literal manifestation of art as a means of confronting life’s difficulties, and our heroine quickly heading to the library to read up on monsters to equip her with the knowledge she’ll need to face one, there’s a subtle though excellent thread throughout about the value of the arts; its ability to document, educate, and empower.
The cast of characters is wonderfully diverse. Jam herself is trans and selectively mute due to anxiety, and though both of these facts are referenced several times, they are incidental to her role within the narrative. This kind of casual, normalised representation is just as important as stories that place trans and neurodiverse/mental health issues front and centre. I thought both aspects were handled beautifully.
If the book has a presiding theme, it’s the notion that true monsters hide within plain sight; that it’s crucial we remain vigilant to the kind of warning signs we may not want to accept, and that we step in to help those who need it. I love and wholly agree with this, but here is where the book’s execution began to fall apart for me, sadly.
In short, it all feels too rushed. The novel is simply too brief to allow sufficient breathing space for the many characters and the enormity of the situation they find themselves facing. As such, most of the side characters fade into obscurity. And fundamentally, though I warmed to Jam hugely, I could never shake the feeling that she was the wrong choice of narrator, as this simply isn’t her story to tell. In a similar vein, it felt like a real missed opportunity to me that the monster’s actual victim is never given a voice. Afforded a mere couple of passing references, they feel like little more than a plot device used to facilitate Jam and Redemption’s confrontation with the monster, lacking any depth, agency, or closure of their own. The book may be about stepping in to help others, but it still felt like an odd choice to sideline a crucial character in what is essentially their own story.
The book’s climax also sat very uncomfortably with me. There is initially some well-handled commentary on the futility of “killing monsters” (what I read as critique of the death penalty); arguing against its barbarity, suggesting that to live with your mistakes is a greater punishment, and explaining the value of having living examples of where society can go wrong, so we can better address the underlying issues that turn people into “monsters” in the first place and remain vigilant to their presence. This was all great, but then, (and consider the rest of this paragraph something of a spoiler warning) … Pet melts the eyes of the “monster” out of his head, torturing him physically and breaking him mentally, in order to force a full confession. Not only is this arguably a dubious moral message to be sending to young readers in and of itself, but it completely contradicts the book’s previous efforts to suggest that real monsters look like “normal” people – for want of a better phrase. By choosing to punish the villain by mutilating him, thus marking his body out as noticeably Other, Emezi unwittingly reinforces the harmful trope that physical flaws denote a corrupt interior.
As you can probably tell by my review, this is a deceptively complex novel and my feelings towards it are suitably conflicting. There’s no denying that Emezi is an interesting author tackling important themes through a bold lens. The many glowing reviews pouring in for Pet suggest I’m in the minority, but certain creative choices and (what was to me) a problematic outcome stopped it from winning my heart. I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot though. It will be interesting to see how it stands the test of time; whether its strengths outlast my initial frustrations, or whether the latter prove too great.