The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen

the nest

(contains spoilers)

“Scritch, scratch, scritch”

This wasn’t planned as a book of the week. In fact, it wasn’t even in my ‘to be reviewed’ pile of books that teeters on the edge of my desk like some tower of Pisa, threatening to, and yet never quite pitching to the floor. I found it whilst rummaging through some books at a colleague’s on Wednesday night, and, the narrative and the voice enticed me from the outset, like a bee to nectar.

Except this is no friendly honeybee tale.

I don’t often come across ‘horror’ in children’s books. There is the Goosebumps series of course, and various other chilling tales that weave a web of menace in the mind, and Coraline, which I still think is one of the most haunting tales I’ve ever read. The Nest by Kenneth Oppel isn’t genre fiction, in that it isn’t just horror – it’s literary children’s fiction at its finest, and yet with a latent horror that rises closer to the surface the further you read.

Of course there’s horror in the very youngest children’s narratives – ‘Ring a Ring of Roses’ hasn’t a pretty fairy tale ending, and even ‘Row row row your boat’ holds a threat – ‘life is but a dream’ – what meaning does life really contain?

Kenneth Oppel plays with the distinction, or lack of, between dream and reality as a hook for his narrative, as well as cramming in a host of other themes and issues into his slight novella about a boy and some wasps:

Steve has always worried about stuff. Now he has new things to worry about – his newborn baby brother is sick, his parents are struggling to cope, and there is a wasps’ nest hanging in the eaves of their house. When Steve dreams about some angels who can ‘fix’ the baby, Steve thinks his worries may be assuaged. But the angels don’t stay in his dreams, and they aren’t what they first appear to be: they are wasps, and the ‘fixes’ they can provide, don’t turn out to be the ‘fixes’ that Steve had in mind. Before long Steve must do everything he can to protect himself and the newborn baby from the swarming wasps.

The Queen of the wasps, at first a soothing, fluttery angel with a mellifluous voice, soon turns out to be a coercive villain – the worst kind – one who seems nice but is far from it. Who offers what one wants, be it Turkish delight or to fix your newborn baby brother – and yet who is manipulating you in the worst possible way.

The ‘fix’ to the baby turns out to be ‘replacement’, which is a far cry from what Steve had envisaged. His guilt at being sucked into the wasps’ plan is ever present, almost tangible with its force, and his worries mutate from small insignificant worries into huge worries with wings.

Kenneth Oppel uses all the traits of classic horror to tell his tale – from unknown shadows at the bottom of the bed, to a figure no one else can see, to knives, the attic, a ringing telephone with a disembodied voice at the end of the line – and superbly juxtaposes Steve’s growing nightmare with his sunny little sister’s carefree existence.

The themes abound, from whether naming things gives a person power and control over a situation: If Steve could pinpoint exactly what was wrong with the baby, he might feel better:

“It made me feel better to have the words. As if knowing the names of things meant I had some power over them.”

to the exploration of villain and hero. By the end of the story not everyone is at the same end of the spectrum from where they were first cast – so that the roles aren’t obvious – no one is all hero or all villain, everyone has good and bad within – which leads onto Oppel’s main theme – that of perfection and normality. If the baby is made ‘perfect’ by the wasps, what does this mean? Do we want perfection? Are a person’s defects what makes them themselves, and is there such a thing as normality anyway:

“It was so perfect that it wouldn’t even understand what is was like not to be perfect. It could never know weakness or fear.”

The idea of a collective workforce, the worker wasps working their entire short lives for the Queen’s plan, sacrificing themselves for the greater good – is this a good thing?

And throughout, Oppel’s writing is masterful. His imagery light and fluttering:

“the threads of DNA that tell everything what to do. And with the baby I pictured them like strings of Christmas tree lights, only some bulbs were missing, and others were winking, and some had blinked out for good.”

Oppel has written his novel so that the reader feels so deeply burrowed within Steve’s mind that we can see all his thoughts, worries, anxieties laid bare before us, and they are particularly powerful when he worries about his parents’ concern for himself. He overhears snatched conversations, he ‘reads’ his parents’ expressions: his fearfulness is expertly portrayed.

And Oppel stings the text with insect references, from our houses being our own nests, to cocooning ourselves under the bedclothes, to cocooning thoughts in our head.

Even the cover of the book is clever – the jacket the outside of the nest, whereas the hard cover underneath shows the hexagons of the interior nest. Inside, Klassen’s images are equally menacing – showing half people with a lack of facial features, depicting the shadows instead of the real image, and wasps, so many wasps. And the endpapers are ingenious – showing the same image, and yet with slight but distinct differences so that the opening image looks threatening, the final image more homely.

Obviously many reviewers have pointed out the parallels with Skellig by David Almond – a sick new baby, angel references, a hidden space within the home, and yet this is powerful in a very different way. It makes you scared, and it makes you think.

At what point do we introduce such deep questions, such horror to our children? Because actually children do have anxieties from quite an early age – “will I fit in at school, am I wearing the right sneakers, why are my parents getting divorced?” There are so many questions, so many worries, that it’s only right that our fiction reflects some of these back to us. And this one does this with absolute perfection. It’s not a book that will cocoon you with warmth, but it’s a book that made it to the top of my pile of books – a book to dissect, and treasure, and nest with. You can purchase it here.

The book is marketed for age 10+. Please note that there are scenes of horror that sensitive children might find disturbing.