Review – Bitter & Pet

Akwaeke Emezi
Satisfying Quick Read Prequel
(CWs below)

Hope is a discipline. — Aloe
The cover of Bitter, by Akwaeke Emezi.  There is a young woman of African decent with close-cropped hair and elegant eyebrows. She has dark mauve lipstain and has a silver lip piercing on the lower left. She is dressed in striped Liberty-type overalls with a paint-bespattered pale yellow sweatshirt underneath. In her left hand she holds a purple paintbrush tipped in gold paint, raised up, pointing out of the top of the image. The backdrop she stands in front of is colored in bright swaths of paint - dark green and light, splotches of white and bright pink.

I’ve had Bitter for quite some time, living on my chest of drawers since last Independent Bookstore Day, as a matter of fact. I read Pet a few years ago, pre-pandemic and was quite taken with it. It is a breathtaking book, and I remember how excited I was to hand-sell it when it came out, but the details had faded somewhat, with everything that had come and gone since then.

I’ve struggled with reading much, in the past few years. There are reasons that make sense, but they don’t belong in this book review, so let’s pass them by with just that acknowledgement. Don’t get me wrong, I love books (especially YA and children’s literature) and writing and creativity, and reading can be a real joy. To be swept up in a story is a treasure, a sweet taste, a moment of other. I’ve missed it, honestly.

Recently I picked up a book (review soon) that I had been working on finishing, slowly, one that I started before the pandemic but had just … struggled to move forward with. I think giving myself the space to *not read* for a while has been good, because I found it much easier to dip back into the author’s world and follow the characters on their journey. Once I got back into it I fairly zoomed along, which is what I used to do. Speed reading comes in quite handy as a bookseller. Anyway, once I finished that book, I was still hungry for more story, so I picked up Bitter, excited to see how it went as I’d really loved Pet.

What I found was enveloping and genuine. The story was linear in the same way Pet was, but softer, moving forward in little ripples, at least at the start. Bitter and her friends, her beloved and the people she respects, they hold space for each other and, even if they grow angry, they are careful to argue safely, and to apologize when they need to. I’ve only read these two books by Emezi, but that is one of the things I treasure most about their books – that her characters in these books respect one another and properly take care with their relationships, working through difficulties when they are called out for not doing that well.

The edges of Lucille are blurred and unreal – meant, I think, to also stand in as an avatar for our real, more complicated world. The struggle of the people in this world are very real, and very real consequences are met, but at the same time, Lucille is able to stand on its own, and its people make decisions on their own, free of the interconnected consequences of our world.

Bitter is a great read, but more *just* a great read, and a wonderful companion to Pet. The latter book is thinner and tighter, focused well into the future of Lucille. I’ve borrowed Pet from the library and reread it so that I can write this review.

A girl of African decent stands at the center of a patterned background of muted gold feathers. Her natural hair is pulled up high above a purple wrap, several ringlets hanging down to frame her face. She shares some features with Bitter, including high arched brows. She is wearing a grey pajama top with splotches of green. Held in her right hand (out of frame), she holds a large feather, white with speckled black towards the base, black at its tip. There are several award stickers on the cover, including a Stonewall honors sticker, and a National Book Award finalist sticker.

Akwaeke Emezi
Lightfilled and Compassionate. Fast, Gorgeous Read
(CWs Below)

Pet is definitely best read first, in my opinion. The world is concise but faded into the background, seen through the eyes of a wonderful main character. Jam is a young trans girl, perhaps around twelve. She is the daughter of Bitter and Aloe – a painter and paramedic, respectively. The story introduces us to Jam and her world on the last day of school for the summer. We meet her best friend Redemption, we see her mother’s art practice and learn a little bit about what she is painting. We meet the librarian (Ube), learn more about Lucille and its angels. We learn about Jam herself – how she chooses to sign when she needs – how she is nonverbal much of the time. And then an accident happens, and we meet Pet, summoned to Lucille to hunt for a monster, a monster that the adults in Jam’s life swear can’t be there.

Pet is a tight, fast-paced read, and it is slim, so I won’t spoil any more of the plot, barring the content warnings below. It moves rapidly towards its conclusion and while characters are loving and well-communicating, and most of Jam’s world is a safe space, the dangers that Pet hunts for are all too real. This is a gorgeous, triumphant read. It is full of luminous hope. It was a precious thing to follow Jam and Redemption as they moved into hard tasks and in doing so, made their world a better place. Highly recommended!

My one caveat regarding Bitter is this. Knowing that it was written after Pet, and knowing what I do about the characters in each story, I’m a bit surprised at how gently and kindly drawn one character is – one that we meet in Pet and return to in Bitter. If you have read both books, I’d be interested in your take on that – I’m sure you know which character I mean. Having the life experiences I’ve had, I’m a bit … unsure I would have drawn that character as compassionately as they are drawn in Bitter. Perhaps that is my failing. Regardless, lots to consider.

If you’ve not read these two books, please consider them. Especially Pet, my favorite of Emezi‘s books so far.

CW for Bitter – discussion of parental abandonment and abuse, parental death, drug use, violence, death
CW for Pet – violence, abuse

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