“A dark teenage family drama for children which bleeds into an unsettling dream world”
Straight off the bat I would like to point out that this is an exceptionally odd book, and because of this oddness it’s pretty difficult to gage who it is actually aimed at, or who might enjoy it. It’s one of those novels that when you read as an adult, you pick up on lots of subtleties that child readers will either miss or ignore. I have a ten year old who reads a lot and I think she’d struggle with this novel, so I’d probably recommend it to slightly older kids, twelve plus probably. Having said that, it’s one of those books which a parent and child could have fun talking about together as it deals with a number of complex issues including death, illness, loneliness and loss very sensitively. It’s not strictly a horror novel, but merges effortlessly into several genres.
The novel opens with Steve realising that his new born baby brother has a very serious illness, either fatal or life-changing, but his parents wont engage in conversation with him about it. As the baby weakens Steve is failing to cope and his parents don’t really notice as they’re wrapped up in the sick sibling. Having other OCD type problems, which aren’t ever specified and previous stints in therapy which are deliberately not explored, the novel drifts into Steve’s dreams and it becomes increasingly difficult to separate reality from make-believe and fantasy. The dreams act as a type of safety net for Steve which worsen when his distracted parents fail to remove a large and dangerous nest of wasps from the side of the house. The wasps infiltrate his dreams and as he fears the worst for his baby brother the wasps offer to help the baby. The nest is certainly real, as is Steve’s allergy to their stings, the rest is left deliberately blurry. The conversations he has with the Queen Wasp in the dream sequences are great and the reader quickly realises Steve is incredibly lonely as he talks to the wasps more than he does to his own family. He lives with this, eats with them, and he loves his baby brother, but his connection to them weakens as the wasps dominate his dreams. So the Queen offers a solution to the baby’s illness, but at a terrible price.
I enjoyed the blurring of reality and dreams, but I have a feeling a lot of younger readers might struggle with this as you’re not offered a cut and dried answer on what is real and what isn’t. I didn’t feel cheated by the ending, a child reader might though. It’s one of those books that adults probably think kids might like, and a certain type will, but if your child likes a crash-bang-wallop type of read this probably isn’t it. The dynamic of the family is very realistic, I particularly liked the side-story with Steve’s little sister who he struggles to relate to and deals with the sick baby in her own way. I have to point out that the book had some similarities with both David Almond’s classic “Skellig” (sick sibling and help from an angel) and Patrick Ness’s “A Monster Calls” (sick mother and a monster tree). Actually, the beautiful and atmospheric illustrations by Jon Klassen reminded me of the drawings in “A Monster Calls” which won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal. It’s a briefish read which is beautifully packaged in a small square hardback format with the exquisite drawings adding much to the book.
Kenneth Oppel is a highly distinguished Canadian author of 15+ novels aimed at kids of varying ages, who is probably best known in the UK for “This Dark Endeavour” and sequel which looks at the formative years of Victor Frankenstein. He’s an exceptionally clever writer who is impossible to pigeonhole and effortlessly moves around the fantasy, horror and science fiction genres with confidence. “The Nest” is fine addition to an already impressive body of work.