Moving from The Boundless to Kenneth Oppel's latest novel, The Nest, is a true chalk and cheese scenario. This is a book that is easiest to classify as an example of 'contemporary kids with issues' fiction. There are a lot of these around at the moment, with conditions such as autism and dyslexia heading almost towards fiction overkill. Their quality varies from outstanding to tedious, but of course, with this one written by such a master, it is something very special. The immediate 'issue' for Steve, protagonist narrator here, seems to be the very recent birth of a sibling with severe and complex medical problems. However this is not the heart of his problem for Steve suffers from near paranoid insecurity, which he attempts to cope with through obsessive-compulsive routines. It soon becomes apparent that these behaviours actually well predate 'the baby'. In fact the baby is more of an externalisation, a physicalisation, of Steve's belief that there is 'a lot wrong with him'. This author succeeds magnificently in getting right inside his character's head, and hence putting the reader there too. The writing is remarkable, so that you share every moment of Steve's experience, both real and imagined.
The stunning thing about this book, however, is the way that Steve's imaginings and dreams morph into a sort of reality. These imaginings revolve around a nest of wasps whose angelic queen has a plan to make the baby perfect again. At the same time his dreams are haunted by a terrifying knife grinder who seems to wish the opposite. But the world inside and the world outside Steve's head do not remain stable. Dreams become nightmares and the reverse. Cure becomes curse and vice versa. Metaphore leaks into reality. Life for Steve becomes a helter skelter of horror.
The second from last chapter of The Nest is a masterpiece of ever building terror. The book is a page-turner from the start, but from this point to,the end I almost defy anyone to put it down without finishing it.
Parents probably need to be aware that this is a very disturbing story. For those children who can take it, it will be disturbing in a good way, by making them really think. It does not end altogether happily ever after. In fact rather the opposite. That is the point. But this does not prevent the denouement being positive. For all its dreamscape and its metaphor, the core message of Kenneth Oppel's story is very real. This is possibly the most humane, most life affirming book I have come cross in a long time. It will change attitudes towards those with illness and disability, be it physical or mental. It is an inordinately important book.
It has been said by others, but is well worth repeating, that this story is considerably enhanced by Jon Klassen's darkly atmospheric illustrations. The small physical volume, too, has itself a disturbingly beautiful look and feel; altogether a triumph for its publishers as well as for author and artist. If this book doesn't win awards then the system is seriously awry, even though my personal preference rememains for The Boundless.
If you haven't yet read either of these amazing books it is worth trying them back-to-back just to get a feel of just how breathtakingly versatile (and brilliant) this writer is.