Review: A List of Cages

Robin Roe’s A List of Cages is a 2017 contemporary YA release that’s been on my radar all year, but I haven’t actually seen it anywhere–bookstores, libraries, etc. It’s been oddly absent. Finally I requested it on interlibrary loan so I could read it in July, and here we are.

alistofcagesAbout the book: Julian and Adam were foster brothers in childhood, but then Julian’s uncle came to claim him. For five years, Julian has been living with his uncle, but now he’s starting high school–the same high school that Adam attends as a senior. Adam has a whole crew of friends already assembled, but after meeting Julian again at school he makes sure there’s always room in his life for Julian. At first the two are just happy to be reunited, but Julian’s life hasn’t been problem-free for a long time and this is no exception. His uncle objects to Julian spending time with Adam. Adam is not allowed in the house, Julian has to hide the time he spends with Adam both in and out of school. As Julian’s uncle becomes more aggressive in an attempt to control Julian’s life, Adam begins to notice that something is wrong with the situation, though Julian is making every effort to appease his uncle by denying that anything bad is happening. Adam may be able to rescue Julian from his uncle’s abuse, but if he can’t succeed, Julian’s situation will only get worse.

“I know what I think, but people don’t want you to say what you think. They want you to say what they think. And knowing what that is isn’t easy.”

I appreciate the messages of friendship and justice in this book, and I think that Julian’s character is adorable–he’s young for his age, but observant and objective in ways that prevent him from seeming ridiculously childish when he doesn’t understand something or behave as expected. These are the aspects that made me rate this book as I highly as I did, though I also had some problems with its execution.

Firstly, Adam’s character falls flat. He’s not unrealistic, necessarily, but predictable. He’s the kind of guy who would maybe be fun to know in real life, but in fiction he comes off as particularly fictional. After about two chapters in Adam’s perspective, nothing he was going to do had any power to surprise me. I grew increasingly bored in his chapters. His plot threads about the senior class dare game and crushing on  Emerald seem almost painfully cheerful-bland and unnecessary to the overall story. In light of what Julian is going through, it’s hard to be interested in Adam having his usual good time with his horde of friends and generally being loved by everyone. It’s nice to see a character who has struggled with ADHD living such a happy life, but I did not need nearly so much detail about that because it didn’t really have anything to do with the plot. It seems like Adam is only necessary in this book at all to be in the right place at the right time for Julian. I’m glad Adam exists in this story, for Julian’s sake, but I wish he stuck to the background. It doesn’t feel like his story to tell.

I also didn’t like that almost every adult in this story is so mean. Sometimes when you’re a kid, the grown-ups seem like the bad guys; sometimes the grown-ups actually are the bad guys. But I don’t think that every single teacher and nurse and casual bystander should be depicted as cruel toward children. I can only think of two adults in this novel who were nice to any of the teens in this book, and those two were the overly nice “I’m going to spend all of my time and energy looking after kids who need my help” type who didn’t step in when it was needed until one of the other kids brought the big problem to their attention. It feels unrealistic, and it’s a bad message to send teen readers that there are no adults willing to help them, and that all adults are blind to teenage strife. There are grown-ups who can and are willing to help.

“It’s strange how many ways there are to miss someone. You miss the things they did and who they were, but you also miss who you were to them. The way everything you said and did was beautiful or entertaining or important. How much you mattered.”

On the plus side, this is one of those books that brushes close to actual problems in the real world and raises awareness without becoming overly moralizing. It highlights problems like child abuse and how children with quiet and/or unusual personalities can be taken advantage of by ill-meaning adults, but it does those things without cramming “you should do this to help the cause” suggestions down the reader’s throat. It doesn’t make the reader feel like a bad person for being unaware that stories like this can happen. And that’s one of the things I love best about fiction–something totally made up can make a real difference without turning into a how-to pamphlet.

Warning: A List of Cages deals with some heavy topics. Be prepared to encounter some abuse, bullying, and grief in this story.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had a good time reading this book, despite its grim subject matter and the few complaints detailed above. It’s easily readable and insightful, and I’m definitely going to be recommending this one. I’ll be interested to see if Roe will have future works to check out. A List of Cages reignited my interest in hard-hitting, meaningful YA stories–which is great because today I’m starting Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give.

Further recommendations:

  1. Emma Donoghue’s Room is an adult book with a young child narrator that makes the story accessible for a wide range of readers (read: it’s an adult book that may interest YA readers). If you’re touched by Julian’s struggles and the possibility of real-life similar cases, then Room is a good choice for a next read. In this one, a woman and her young son are imprisoned in Room, a small, windowless, sound-proof shed where their captor has held them hostage for years. The book covers a plot for escape and justice.
  2. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is a YA book about a teen girl with an abusive stepdad and a slough of other difficulties (poverty, bullying, many young siblings to take care of), trying to make her way through a new public school. This is another great story about friendship (and romance), and kids fighting horrible situations and unfit guardians.

Coming up next: I’m just finishing Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, which makes a great summer read. It’s about a 59 year-old man who’s angry at the world and everyone in it, with a past full of grand and painful stories and a future full of unexpected friends–and a mangy cat. It’s humorous and emotional, light enough to read at the beach but heavy enough to take seriously.

What type of book is your perfect summer read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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