Above is our world. Safe is below: a place where the mentally and physically other can live away from doctors and institutionalisation and forced surgery. A place they can be safe.
I use the word other because what is important about these people is how they have been judged and treated by the people living Above. They range from schizophrenic to intersex to people with crab-claws and lion-feet and the ability to turn into a bee – the words mentally ill or physically disabled are not right for many of them, although they are all treated as such Above. (I personally found the inclusion of fantastical conditions alongside real-world ones non-problematic because the novel treats them as entirely real: the people who have them are mistreated alongside those with real-world conditions, and are no more special or magical or mistreated than someone who is intersex or has Tourette’s.)
Bobet is indeed making a point about the way our society treats those it considers other.
But Bobet goes beyond this point – not that it necessarily needs to be gone beyond, but she makes it well, in my opinion, and goes beyond it – to question the rigour of the world she creates. So these people dig out a home underneath Toronto and manage to keep it watered, lit, aired and fed. What then? What happens when people are people? Because even people who have been ostracised and othered by society are going to treat each other shittily from time to time. So these people place storytelling at the heart of their society. What happens when the stories are wrong?
The book’s young protagonist, Matthew, the first person to be raised from birth in Safe, is confronted with these questions throughout the book. He is sure that Safe is safe and right and Above is dangerous and full of evil. He is young.
Corner, exiled from Safe when Matthew was a child, is back: with murderous shadows and a desire for revenge. Matthew manages to flee Safe with his sort-of-girlfriend Ariel (who can turn into a bee) and Jack. They must find any other survivors and figure out how to save Safe, but in the meantime Matthew learns more about the true history of Corner’s exile – and the true nature of the world – than he wants.
Matthew is faced with some particularly tough questions that undermine his entire worldview. What happens when Safe isn’t the best solution for everybody? When it isn’t the best solution for the girl he loves? What happens when the leader of Safe has done something irreparably, unforgivably cruel? Bobet does not presume to suggest that therapy or institutionalisation are always right and Safe is wrong – reality is not that straightforward. Some people benefit from therapy. Some people are harmed by it and by the horrible intent of doctors. If Above makes any pronouncements, it is that, where at all possible, the person in question must be able to make their own decisions about the management of their health and body. But, of course, not everyone can make their own decisions – and how do we define the ability to make decisions? These are questions that need to be asked by everyone. I suspect that this aspect of the novel will provoke a wide range of responses from readers, but I personally thought it well-handled. (I am, however, aware of my own privilege as someone who is very able-bodied by society’s standards and mostly neurotypical.)
I also appreciated the uncomfortable way that Matthew grapples with Ariel and his desire to have agency for her: to care for her, because he perceives her as being unable to care for herself (and largely she cannot, but not wholly). Ariel is an abused and mentally unwell girl (and thankfully the former is not suggested to be the cause of the latter) who struggles to give shape and words to her wants – but she has wants, and Matthew is not the sun around which her wants orbit. Ultimately, though the viewpoint remains with Matthew, the narrative itself (as well as Matthew) respects her own agency, her own needs. Like many YA books, the main relationship is incredibly unbalanced – but Above shines a strong light on how uneasy and damaging that imbalance is. And it does not make Matthew a romantic hero at all.
Unfortunately, I did not find the ending quite so well-handled. There is some dithering around the right thing to do about Corner, which is – as with many other questions this book raises – not immediately given an easy answer. But then it is, sort of, with a sudden lack of complexity that left me disappointed.
Another weakness in Above is structural. At the end of each chapter, under a separate header, is a character’s story of how they came to Safe or contributed to it in some way. Matthew, as the Teller of Safe, is the repository of these stories. While these stories expand the reader’s knowledge of the characters and often relate to the main narrative in some way, they sit like big rocks impeding the flow of that narrative. As much as I enjoyed them, I wish they had been better integrated.
In all, Above is a prickly, interesting book, flawed but thought-provoking. It makes a point and tells a story at the same time. It resists offering too many easy solutions.