I think Kenneth Oppel is a terrific, and terrifically versatile, author. He writes across ages and in different genres, and usually with great success. In fact, my first bibliobrit post was for The Boundless, and it was one of my top books of 2014.
The Nest is an eerie, horror fantasy for upper elementary and middle grade readers. In this short and evocative story, with not a word or scene wasted, Steve, an anxious and imaginative boy, starts having dreams about angels which seem to be connected to his baby brother who has been born with congenital disorders. Steve is resentful of the baby who seems to be taking all his parents’ attention and bringing strain to the family: “But when I looked at the baby, mostly what I thought of was all the things I couldn’t see – all the things that were going wrong inside him.”
Gradually Steve realizes his dreams are about a nest of wasps and conversing with the queen, he discovers that they are going to ‘fix’ the baby, but the terrible implication of what this means isn’t clear until he enters into a pact with her. Her cold dismissal of Theo as a “crappy little broken baby”, shocks Steve out of his antipathy and into full big brother mode.
Oppel draws the fine line between dreams and reality and, as the book progresses ever deeper into fantasy, this line becomes increasingly blurred. Steve is a marvelous creation – a boy who wants to be safe and enveloped, “untouchable in my little nest”, but gradually realizes he has to face the world as there is no-one to rely on except himself.
The first person present tense narration brings a tense immediacy, and Jon Klassen’s illustrations work to great effect to evoke the disjointedness, isolation, and exclusion that Steve feels (and remind me, in some ways, of Jim McKay’s extraordinary illustrations for Patrick Ness’s great A Monster Calls).
As Steve comes to understand that perfection is not always desirable, and that normality is not as easily defined as he imagines, the books reaches a suffocating and intense climax bringing all the strands of the story together, and a resolution is reached that is fulfilling and unforced.
I think the audience for The Nest is probably pretty limited, but it will work really well for readers who like to be unsettled.