The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen, 244 pp, RL 4
I have read more books by the very talented Kenneth Oppel than I have reviewed here and I really need to do something about that. Oppel's superb Silverwing Saga was one of the first books I reviewed when I started in 2008. Oppel's intriguing Airborn Trilogy got my non-fiction loving son through some challenging middle school book reports and The Boundless is definitely one of the best stories on a train that I have ever read, especially because it begins with a sasquatch sighting as the construction of a railroad that stretches from one end of Canada to the other nears completion.
While Oppel is gifted at writing fantasies that are firmly set in reality, fueled by zeppelins bigger than the Titanic and a 987 car train that is almost seven miles long, his newest novel, The Nest, unfolds on a much smaller scale - at home - and is every bit as suspenseful - and thoughtful - as his grand scale fantasies. The first time Steven dreams of creatures with, "pale gossamer wings and music that came off them, and the light that haloed them," it is ten days after his brother is born. These creatures tell him that they have come to help the baby, who has been born with serious congenital health issues which narrator Steven details with the vague grasp of a child who has not been told everything.
Anxious and with OCD tendencies, an imaginary friend and a recurring nightmare in which a dark shape is standing at the foot of his bed, this overwhelming uncertainty in the form of the new baby intensifies for Steven when a strange type of white wasp builds a nest on the eaves near his bedroom window. The angels in the dream turn out to be the same white wasps that are building a nest on the side of Steven's house. And, in his dreams, the Queen speaks to Steven, telling him that her drones are building a nest where a new baby, a perfect baby will grow. When it is ready, if he agrees, Steven will help them replace the damaged baby with the new one and happiness will return to his family. The Nest unfolds at a cautious pace that matches Steven's anxieties. The Queen's assurances of good intentions and even better solutions seem reasonable, equaling Steven's desire for security at home. The Nest takes a dark turn when Steven comes to understand the true nature of the swap the Queen is proposing and the slow-simmering suspense of the story begins to boil. The climactic scene of The Nest is intense and very real, yet another testament to Oppel's ability to blend reality and fantasy in a meaningful way.
Half way through the novel as Steven nears an important turning point, his babysitter Vanessa, a college student, shares an insight into human existence. "Lots of people have broken bits," she says, sharing that she has a genetic kidney disease that will affect her later in life. "Sooner or later, we're all busted-up in some way." Holding his sleeping brother against his chest, Steven thinks, "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." Fantasy or not, middle grade novel or not, this has to be one of the most profound thoughts I've read in a long time.