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Akwaeke Emezi 

(Faber, 2019)

Review by Halina Edwards


Pet is a young adult novel that introduces us to Jam, a curious, self-assured, young girl, who lives in the utopian American town of Lucille. Lucille is a town previously plagued by ‘monsters’ that  ‘angels’ have eliminated, or so the young people of the town are taught. 

In this debut novel by Nigerian non-binary author Akwaeke Emezi, the plot is as whimsical as the charming appearance of the book cover. The story follows how Jam navigates obstacles with the people closest to her and it imaginatively interweaves dialects, forms of communication (Jam is selectively non-verbal but speaks to her mother), parental relationships and friendships. 

Jam’s mischievous character takes her into the studio of her mother, Bitter, at night, where she accidentally cuts her hand and drips blood on Bitter’’s newest painting. The blood summons a wiry, tall, horned, goldfeathered creature out of the painting, which introduces itself to her as Pet.

Pet tells Jam it is here to hunt monsters and Jam sadly figures out that one lives in the house of her best friend, Redemption. Pet is insistent on its hunt to weed out the monsters and Jam begrudgingly agrees to help – still having a hard time accepting that people can be monsters, particularly anyone in Redemption’s family, which she treats as her own.

The story cleverly balances the crossover between the languages that Jam speaks in the book, drawn from the range of languages and dialects spoken by the people around her. From an early age, Jam has had selective mutism and her parents have taught her sign language so they can communicate. Jam often uses sign language with her parents when certain feelings arise that she chooses not to communicate verbally. It was only in 2022 that the British Sign Language Act recognised BSL as an official language of England, Scotland and Wales. Here, Emezi represents a community often not given representation or appropriate recognition of their access needs. 

The novel picks up on a mixture of cultural traditions and vernaculars heard throughout the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, including Creole, Igbo, African-American Vernacular English and English. The flow between the dialects provides a welcome overview of the broad background that makes up the wider Afro-Atlantic diaspora.

Jam’s closeness to her father, Aloe, and her mother, Bitter, and their unwavering support for her allows her to lead her life with inner integrity. From a young age, she starts to acknowledge that the gender assigned to her at birth isn’t the one she identifies as and, later, medically transitions to. We find out she has access to hormones and hormone blockers. Although not the core theme of Jam’s narrative, the complete trust her family and community have in her and her determination to make her own choices enhance this vivid story. It is a story that tackles difficult topics with tact and care without lingering on graphic detail. Pet feels aspirational in the ways that Jam and Pet work together to hunt for monsters, underscoring that effort and change begin with us.