Last weekend I did the Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon, a twice-yearly, one-day reading marathon. It was my first time participating, and I really didn’t know what to expect. But I needed some momentum with my reading, and I also wanted to show solidarity with fellow book bloggers, librarians, writers, and readers. I learned that the key was to have a huge pile of books pre-selected for the occasion so that once you finished a book, it required virtually no decision-making to find another one to read. It was simply a matter of looking at the pile and selecting a book you felt like reading at the time.
When I finished “The Nest” sometime before noon, I felt shaken, shattered with how much it teased out some of my secret fears and anxieties. As a person with a disability/chronic illness, its themes were immediate to issues I have with my identity as a “sick kid.” It was a nearly upsetting read, but ultimately, it made me feel hopeful and helped me process my life as a differently abled person.
But let me backtrack a bit and give you a (spoiler-free) summary.
In “The Nest” (which, coincidentally, I was reading at the same time I was reading Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s “The Nest”), Steve is an eldest child two a younger sister and his brother, known for most of the novel as “The Baby.” The Baby is only a few weeks old, but it’s been experiencing health issues. It’s prospects are dire. The baby, whom we later learn is named Theo, is sick, disabled with a potentially life-threatening heart condition, among other medical issues. The mood in Steve’s house is dire and somber. Everyone in the family except Steve’s sister seems to be feeling the strain of the baby’s illness and the uncertainty of whether or not he will survive. Meanwhile, Steve has his own issues with anxiety and a budding case of obsessive compulsive disorder. He does not have many friends, and he has been to a therapist before.
Soon after the novel begins, Steve has a dream in which magical creatures whom he first calls angels appear and talk to him about the baby. They offer to replace the baby with a new baby, to take Theo away and, in his place, leave a new, healthy baby who is not sick with medical deformities. In the subsequent chapters, Steve has to make a decision whether or not this is a good idea. This question tests the limits of what it is like to live with a disability—both the baby’s likely sick kid existence and Steve’s own struggles with mental illness—and if the fate that awaits you as a not-quite-perfect person is worth living for or completely unbearable.
Analysis and Review
It should be stated outright that Oppel’s prose is lush and very literary. This novel could be found in a short story collection you find in the literary fiction section of the library or bookstore. The book is gorgeously designed with a stunning cover and wonderful, almost surreal illustrations by Caldecott-medal winning artist Jon Klassen. At first the novel reminded me of Neil Gaiman, especially Coraline, but only in a way that the theme is somewhat macabre and echoes the magical realism and dark questions Gaiman’s fiction is known to raise. I read the novel in about an hour and a half, so it is a quick read. But it is deep, and powerful, and I had to put the book down every so often.
If you had a disability or someone you loved did, would you wish you hadn’t been born? Would you try to reverse your existence so you’d never lived at all, to spare you and your loved ones the expenses and pain and difficulty of life with someone who is differently abled? Dear reader, this was not a new question for me. Countless times over my life I’ve tormented myself with the question of whether I wish I’d never been born. I have a chronic illness/disability—bipolar disorder—and nearly every day it threatens to ruin my spirits, to drag me down into a depression, or (somewhat worse) into a damaging manic spree. It’s cost me thousands and thousands of dollars over the last ten years since my diagnosis, between private therapy and psychiatry, brand name medicine, and hospitalization. The anguish is at times so bad I wish I’d never made it out of the womb or never been conceived at all. It’s grim, I know. Really grim. So I try not to think about it. Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest made me think about it, and I’m glad it did.
The novel does not quite answer all its questions. It’s very dark. Even though it can be found in the middle grade age range (children’s chapter books), I’m not sure I’d give it to a child to read. The reason why is the themes Oppel raises are so masterfully—but subtly—written that I think a lot of it would go over a child’s head. Worse, the child could misunderstand Oppel’s message, that it is better to persevere and live with our illnesses, our disabilities—we, the defective ones, the sick kids, should live. I read this novel with tears in my eyes, but it was a novel I needed to read at the point in time in which it came to me since I had been dealing with a very dark depression on and off. I was at my breaking point as well, wondering how I could possibly go on and find a will to live. But I believed after reading the novel that I deserved to be here, too. That I deserved to live, however imperfect and messy and ill I am.
I think this is an important book for people to read, whether you are sick, whether you are ill, or whether you know someone who is one or the other. The themes and issues The Nest raises touched on my private anxieties, the things I think about when I feel all hope is lost and the darkness is closing in. But I think it’s important for people to read this who aren’t sick with a disability or illness. Because this book well and truly gets it, what life is like for the ill and the well, for those who wonder what life could have been like if things had turned out differently. I came away from this novel believing the ones around me would bolster me with love and support. Even more powerful, I came away with a renewed sense of courage and love and support for myself. I found a support group for young people with mood disorders, and I signed up to attend. I want to live.