Review: Kenneth Oppel’s “The Nest”

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Steve just wants to save his baby brother—but what will he lose in the bargain? Kenneth Oppel’s (Silverwing, The Boundless) haunting gothic tale for fans of Coraline, is one of the most acclaimed books of the year, receiving six starred reviews. Illustrations from Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen.

For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.

All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klassen.

I’m a big Oppel fan, and the pairing of Jon Klassen’s illustrations only intensified my need to read this book, so when it came out I popped into my local bookstore (Kaleidoscope Kids Books in Ottawa!) and picked it up.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this book, and I think that’s the correct mind set to have when reading a piece of fiction–and I mean straight-up fiction, not an adventure or romance or dragonriding fantasy, just straight up fiction without pretense. Why? Because so often this kind of fiction (even if it does dabble in various genres) is simply real life with a twist and there are so many ways that “real life” can be realized that the possibilities are endless. Hence (the collective) “our” obsession with fiction.

On with the review!

The Nest, which is more of a novella than a novel, follows our protagonist Steven, an anxiety ridden young boy (between 10 and 13?), who sleeps with his blankets bunched up around his face, washes his hands until they chap, and composes lists in his head and to physically read over in order to calm himself. Steve is a wonderful character and instantly believable and sympathetic in his mild, thoughtful and gentle mind. As the hot unbearable summer is trumped by any family’s worst nightmare–an ailing baby– life begins to intensify for Steven. The baby (for about half of the book Steve simply refers to Theo as “the baby” as a coping/distancing mechanism) suffers from some sort of congenital disorder and requires heart surgery, of course, before he can have surgery he needs to be as strong as he can be. The story of the family, Steven, the wasps and a mysterious Mr. Nobody unfolds over the summer between his parents’ trips to the hospital, through conversations with their babysitter–a university student who studies zoology–and through Steve’s own dreamscape. The writing and the pacing here are magnificent as we readers are left wondering if the wasps and the mysterious Mr. Nobody are actually real or if they are figments of Steven’s imagination: a sort of strange escape for Steven and a way to explain and cope with Theo’s unfortunate circumstance.

The pacing of the story was The Nest‘s true success as we (and even Steven!) are constantly unsure about the intentions of the wasps or Mr. Nobody . . . good and bad have no place in this novel and that’s probably because life just isn’t that simple. Yet everything is unsettling and creepy. The Queen wasp genuinely soothes Steven and seems to really want to help, at the same time she is talking about replacing Theo which just seems wrong. Then we have the creepy Mr. Nobody who calls the house and doesn’t speak, who calls Steve’s little sister on her toy telephone *shivers* and who is embodied by an eight fingered knife sharpener who drives around their neighbourhood (and doesn’t have any customers) over and over again ringing his little bell . . . As the pacing picks up, the heat of the summer intensifies, the wasps’ replacing of the baby draws near and the whole family eagerly awaits Theo’s surgery the threads of the story begin to pull together–oh, and don’t even think that you can put the book down the feed your own baby!

When I did reach the end of the book I sat on the couch in a bit of a stupor mulling over it and realized how much about OCD and mental wellness and coping the book was about. I have to say, oddly enough, I think that Steven is such a genuine character because, though he comes to realize that there is no such thing as normal, he is so normal within himself (if you know what I mean). There is no other way that Steve can be and so he realizes he has to be himself, flaws and difficulties and all–and so does Theo. He discusses this idea of “normal” at one point, saying:

Sometimes we really aren’t supposed to be the way we are. It’s not good for us. And people don’t like it. You’ve got to change. You’ve got to try harder and do deep breathing and maybe one day take pills and learn tricks so you can pretend to be more like other people. Normal people. But maybe Vanessa was right, and all those other people were broken too in their own ways. Maybe we all spent too much time pretending we weren’t. (The Nest 117)

This kind of insight is littered throughout The Nest and for me makes the story, marketed as a comparison to Coraline, more akin to Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls or More Than This  or perhaps, if we have to have a Gaiman comparison The Ocean at the End of the Lane because, in a way, it was a slice of life book with an uncanny bend to it (sci-fi or faery I really don’t know, and it doesn’t necessarily matter and I think this is true of the comparison books I suggest here). Oh, and I have to mention the beautiful charcoal illustrations by Jon Klassen. They are not only stunning, but more often then not features shades of grey adding to the atmosphere of the text in a thematic and poignant way.

This is a great read, appropriately marketed to Middle Grade just also suitable for older readers. It is creepy, but that’s the point and don’t worry, your middle grade reader can take it! Teachers and librarians alike will enjoy this book in their classroom as a way of talking about “normal” and coping, illness, themes and motifs in literature and hey, even the subject of insects might draw in your reluctant readers (don’t forget to mention that it’s written by their favourite Canadian author who wrote about the bats!).

I hope you enjoy–and I hope to read your opinions of the book in the comments!