Review of Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
by Akwaeke Emezi
Although Pet crossed my book radar a few times, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if it hadn’t been recommended to me by my friend Emeline. The descriptions of the book, despite its promise of a trans main character, didn’t leave me with the impression that it would be my jam. Indeed, for the first third or so, that was my initial conclusion: that I could understand Pet’s appeal for other readers, but its style didn’t work for me. As I continued reading, however, and as Akwaeke Emezi’s story unfolded into my mind, my appreciation for Pet grew. While I’m not as enthralled with it as many others, I’ve gone from “eh, it’s ok” to “ah, I see what you did there.”
Pet begins allegorical, a utopian tale of the town of Lucille in a time after a revolution has removed all the “monsters” from power. Now the town is governed by angels, by people who are free of corruption, discrimination, etc. Explanations for how we got here are (necessarily) vague, nor is it clear how Lucille relates to the rest of the world. All we know is that Jam is a teenage trans girl who accidentally brings to life a figure from her mother’s painting. This figure, who names itself Pet, appears monstrous, but Pet insists it is here to hunt true monsters—and there is one within the house of Jam’s best friend, Redemption. What ensues is an examination of the nature of monstrosity and the boundaries of friendship.
I struggled with Pet at first simply because I prefer much more straightforward narration than Emezi provides here. This is not an unusual issue for me to have with books, and I can often tell even just from the way a book has been summarized if it’s going to work for me. Despite this book being a scant 200 pages, 50 pages in I was struggling to cast an anchor into this story. I want more conversation and discussion, and more description, than I was getting.
But, it’s 200 pages, right? So I persevered, and hey, this was one of those rare cases when it got better! To be clear, the style itself doesn’t change, but the substance of Jam’s adventure with Pet was enough to keep me going. I appreciate the conflict she experiences as she negotiates her loyalty to Redemption with her nervousness about telling him the full truth. Similarly, Emezi carefully establishes all the ways in which Jam (and then Redemption) try to put their faith in adults only to feel let down. This is a book for children and teens that acknowledges that they are not often believed by adults, even about the most serious things. The resolution of Pet is less about dealing with monsters as it is about reminding us that when we let down our guard and say, “No, that can’t be,” are opening ourselves up to harm from the unseen.
Pet grew on me. In the end, I’m not going to rave about this book like I do others. I’d say, read the summary, read the first few pages, and trust your gut. If it sounds like your style, you’re going to love it; if, like me, you balk at the narration, you might struggle like me too. This is a book that is unapologetic about how it tells its story, which I respect. And at the end of the day, it is definitely nice to have more books with trans protagonists that are emphatically not about transition/coming out. So I love Pet for that alone. As a novel and a story, however, it’s so-so to me.