By Maureen Tai, 30 April 2018
“I tried to look more closely at the angel in front of me. Her head alone seemed as big as me. It was a bit like standing before that huge stuffed lion at the museum, except the mane and whiskers were all light, and the eyes were huge, and the mouth never moved. She was magnificent, and I wasn’t sure she had a mouth at all, but I was aware, every time she spoke, of something grazing my face, and of the smell of freshly mown grass.” – Steven
I met Kenneth Oppel before I read The Nest. Canadian, living in Toronto, a graduate of Trinity College (my own alma mater), a husband and father, and a writer. An amiable fellow, with a dry sense of humour and smiling eyes. So his book – illustrated by Jon Klassen, another Canadian and celebrated children’s book writer and illustrator – would be a gentle, calming read with hints of sarcasm. Right? Wrong.
Steven’s story begins with the birth of a baby brother. The baby has a rare, possibly degenerative and congenital condition that jeopardizes both the life of the infant and the closeness of the family unit that is Steven, his mom and dad, and his little sister Nicole. At the start, Steven knows as little as we do. The reader follows the boy as he unravels the mystery of the wasp’s nest in his garden, piece by tantalizing piece. Snippets of an overheard conversation. Flashback to childhood nightmares. A conversation with a strange creature in a surreal dream-like other-space. The encounter with the knife sharpener guy, who comes around in a van and who seems nice but is rather creepy (and yes, a knife features big time towards the end of the novel). The visit to the therapist. The crank calls that ring in through his sister’s toy phone (slightly Hitchcock-esque, for those old enough to remember that great story-teller).
We see all that is unfolding exclusively through Steven’s eyes, and we make sense of it in real time, as he does. And because Steven is “imperfect,” we don’t fully understand the horrific reality of what is happening until it is almost too late. This is what keeps us teetering at the edge of our seats. This is what makes The Nest an un-put-down-able cracker of a thriller.
The central question that the author asks is “if you had a choice, would you choose to be perfect?” This is a real dilemma for Steven. After spending half the book in his head, the reader senses that Steven is not only imperfect, but he might not be “normal” in the way that term is used in modern society to describe our species. This is never affirmed, but subtly hinted at. Steven admits that he has difficulty socially, and that he has obsessions and unusual worries that keep him up at night. But his own “abnormality” is not why Steven struggles with this question. It is a real tussle because he is offered a chance to make that choice not for himself, but for his newborn baby brother, Theo. Perfection and life on the one hand. Imperfection and certain death on the other.
Heavy questions for a middle-grade book, packaged in a taut, fast-paced and thrilling story that will have you looking at wasps’ nest very differently for years to come.
For ages 9 and up.
Kenneth Oppel is first from the right.