The Fragile Utopia in Akwaeke Emezi’s ‘Pet’
I don’t usually find myself reaching for books in the Young Adult genre. But having read Akwaeke Emezi’s stellar debut novel ‘Freshwater’, I could not wait to get my hands on her 2019 book, ‘Pet’. And I am more in awe of her writing than ever.
The strikingly imaginative ‘Pet’ is set in the utopian city of Lucille, a world in which all monsters have been eliminated, defeated by the angels who fought and won the revolution. In this fictional world, there are no backstabbing politicians, no police to fear, and no hoarding billionaires. Emezi brings this utopian city to life beautifully — through its close-knit unconventional families, dialogue, and food — before slowly introducing us to its complexities.
There are delightful moments as we discover all the other ways in which Lucille is an utopia. It exists in a world where trans children are trusted to know their own bodies and minds. The novel’s protagonist is a black transgender teen with selective mutism. Jam expresses her identity when she is three, and is lovingly embraced by her parents, has access to hormones and hormone blockers, and is able to make her own choices about medically transitioning. Jam also chooses when she wants to voice her thoughts aloud and when to use sign language. This too is par for the course in her community. Jam’s best friend has three parents who are in a polyamorous relationship, and one of them uses the they/them pronoun.
But even in this idyllic world, certain things are tacitly discouraged. Jam’s generation is the first to be monster-free. She has grown up with the understanding that monsters are a taboo subject in Lucille; talking about them is generally discouraged. Jam’s mother, however, indulges her curiosity, stressing on the moral relativism of the angels who “had to do things underhand, dark things” because “[y]ou can’t sweet-talk a monster into anything else, when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.” Very early on, we are left with a vague suspicion that perhaps not all Lucille’s monsters are really gone. The rest of the novel is about Jam’s unlikely friendship with the otherworldly Pet — a magical creature who was unintentionally painted to life, with dark red horns and smoke wafting out of his mouth, smelling like ash — as they team up to hunt for the city’s lurking monster.
The trouble is, how do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit that they still exist?
The novel proceeds slowly and surely and almost deliberately avoids too many climactic moments. It is a deceptively complex story about how evil can thrive in plain sight when people start refusing to look for it, or acknowledging that it can and does exist. It is also a story about how this refusal is itself a kind of violence, hurting and silencing victims. In Lucille, the monsters look like anybody else. They could be your teachers, your boss, or your parents. In its final pages, ‘Pet’ shatters the fragile and unstable utopia of Lucille that it constructed with great care in the first half. It is a reminder that abusers are everywhere, and it will take a lot more than a single ‘revolution’ to banish them from our reality.
Finally, the community is redeemed by the fearless honesty and imagination of one of its youngest members. This act also gives the novel its universal teachable moments — that not all angels and monsters look alike; that we create our own angels and monsters; that love and safety must be earned over and over again; and that it is not enough for utopian communities like Lucille to be painstakingly created, they also have to be constantly fought for and maintained.
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