Thursday, April 18, 2024

Review: Someone You Can Build a Nest In by John Wiswell

A "who is the real monster?" story that dodges the complexity of its own premise

(Note: there is a fairly significant (though not plot-revealing) spoiler in this review - read on at your own risk!)

Opening confession: before reading Someone You Can Build a Nest In, I didn't rate John Wiswell's work very much. Clearly, his writing is doing a lot of things right for a lot of people, since you don't get to be Hugo and Nebula nominated without folks thinking you're great at what you do. But beyond the cute ideas, I don't find a lot in Wiswell stories to sink my teeth into. On a technical level, the prose tends towards the same basic voice regardless of the type of story being told, and on a thematic level, there's a lot of narrative "flattening" to make stories about dark, monstrous themes resolve with a relatively small number of people carving out a safe space and calling it a happy ending. Short fiction might not have much space for complex characters or worldbuilding, but it provides plenty of space for moral complexity, and I find it weird to set up complex premises only to ignore their complexity. Maybe there's something radically cosy in that that I'm just too curmudgeonly to appreciate, or maybe I'm just not picking up on complexity that everyone else sees. Who knows.

Despite not loving the author's prior work and also having a finite amount of precious reading time, I read Someone You Can Build a Nest In for two reasons. First, Hugo and Nebula nominated short fiction authors have a very non-zero chance of landing on a Best Novel ballot, and I like to read things for award purposes. Second, I really wanted this book to give me the experience that it gives people who love Wiswell's writing, because if something different is going to happen for me, it's probably going to happen at a different length, right?

Alas, it didn't happen.

Someone You Can Build a Nest In is the story of Shesheshen, an amorphous shapeshifting monster who eats people and repurposes their organs in order to survive. Shesheshen is content in her isolated, people-eating lifestyle, although she misses her mother - also a people eating shapeshifter, tragically killed by a monster hunter - and reminisces fondly about the father who she and her siblings ate from the inside out after he gestated them, as part of the people eating shapeshifter life cycle. She's also not much of a talker, and the whole book is told in her "voice": which means plenty of simple, unpolished prose. So I guess I'm not having my expectations of the author challenged on that front!

Anyway, when Shesheshen is rudely awoken from hibernation by some monster hunters (led by a posh asshole, so you know you're supposed to root for the people eating monster and not the hunters trying to put an end to all the people eating), it puts her out of her regular people eating schedule and she has no choice but to go into town to find some people to eat immediately (target: another posh and kinda sleazy asshole, also fine to root against). When that doesn't work, she falls off a cliff and is tended to a kind, fat, practical young woman called Homily, who is hunting monsters in the ravine. Shesheshen is delayed from eating Homily for long enough to fall in love with her, Homily is selectively dense enough not to realise the person who survived a fall off a cliff and has no recognisable human organ structures might actually be a monster, and thus begins a beautiful relationship.

Complicating factor number one in Homily and Shesheshen's relationship: for Shesheshen, "falling in love" coincides with getting a strong urge to lay eggs in Homily and have them eat her from the inside out. For me, this aspect of the story actually delivered what I wanted from it to a large extent, albeit without a huge emphasis on the actual wanting to build a nest in her girlfriend bit (you'd have thought... but no). I'd really like to read more stories where "alien" biological urges are things that sentient creatures can exert control and choice over, and while things work out rather conveniently in terms of Shesheshen eradicating those urges, she goes through an interesting process to re-examine what she assumed being in love with someone would look like versus what she actually wants with, and from, Homily. That she has to do this without guidance from a parental figure is both thematically relevant and also kind of interesting, and it makes Shesheshen's convenient discoveries about herself less annoying - maybe she's not the first people eating shapeshifter to do certain things, but she's never had any fellow shapeshifters to learn from. It's heavily implied, though not literally stated, that Homily is asexual ("enby" is a word in people's vocabulary in this queernorm setting, so it's perhaps a bit odd that "ace" isn't, but I digress) so Shesheshen doesn't have any human sexual preferences to figure out how she fits with, aside from an easily discovered mutual enjoyment of cuddling. Good for them, and a win for alien monster protagonist portrayal.

Complicating factor number two is, unfortunately, where things go off the rails. See, Homily isn't just some random monster hunter hunting some random offscreen monster: she's the daughter of the land's war hero leader, and her mother and siblings (one of whom was the posh asshole from earlier! Who already got eaten, oops) are back from the exile which Shesheshen's mother imposed on them by "cursing" the family if they stayed. Homily's family are abusive towards her, and Homily has adapted to this abuse by trying to make herself as "useful" as possible in any given situation, even when it hurts her to do so. Now that Shesheshen has avoided detection as a people eating shapeshifter, she gets roped into the expedition to hunt herself, and to try and help Homily with a toxic family reunion, while also throwing the monster hunting off her own scent.

To fully contextualise why I hated this plot, I have to give that one significant spoiler mentioned above: none of Homily's immediate family survive this book. That means her mother, her adult younger sister Epithet, and her child sister Ode (and her posh asshole brother, but he's gone and we've already mostly forgotten about him, except when Shesheshen uses his teeth to smile at her girlfriend) all meet their ends in ways that are apparently intended to provide context or even catharsis about the familial abuse. This is some morally grey shit right here, especially since one sister was a child eight years younger than Homily while most of her part in the abuse was taking place, and the other is still an actual child. That's not to say that children can't cause real physical and emotional damage to their siblings, even much older ones, but it's surely an open question to what extent the culpability lies with the child and not with the adults who had a duty of care to both siblings? Someone You Can Build A Nest In doesn't seem to care about that question. Instead, we get "straightforward" lessons, in 21st century therapist vocabulary, about how terrible abuse is, and therefore aren't abusers the real monsters here? If the text is nudging us towards answers more sophisticated than "yes", it's laying down clues too subtle for my reading skills, so I'm left assuming that "yes" is the desired answer, and I don't like it.

Ode's death is particularly egregious: having been a bratty bit of comic relief in the narrative, her death is mourned on page by nobody except her mother, whose grief is called out as toxic and wrong. Meanwhile, Homily learns the valuable life lesson that she didn't have to risk her own life trying to save her sister, she's still a good person and nobody should judge her for not trying a bit harder to rescue a child from a grim death. I'm glad we got that lesson sorted out and now you don't have to have any complicated feelings about your role in that situation, Homily! While the other family deaths are treated with a bit more weight, the whole familial comeuppance sits poorly, particularly because it was an authorial choice to make two of Homily's most prominent abusive family members children, set up what should have been a complicated moral situation, and then just... sidestep that complexity, because the story you want to tell is about how abusers are the real monsters, and not the people eating girlfriend. Also relevant: Shesheshen has conveniently gone the whole story without eating anyone who hadn't broken the law or been a posh asshole first, because having to grapple with the ethics of eating people to live is apparently also beyond this story's interests. Textual moral greyness averted again!

So no, I do not get anything cathartic or heartwarming out of Shesheshen and Homily's story. To find those things would require me to narrow down my curiosity and my empathy to the tiny number of characters that the story wants me to believe are worthy of it, and it did not succeed in convincing me of its judgements (was it the people eating? maybe...). In different hands, the messiness inherent in this story could have been kind of amazing. While reading, I drew comparisons to The Book Eaters, which also features obligate people eating and is fully aware of how bleak and antithetical to a heartwarming familial ending that diet is, even as it tries to bring that ending about. I also thought about Light From Uncommon Stars, which portrays an escape from abuse and into the loving orbit of an objectively fucked up person who needs to be convinced not to sacrifice the protagonist to the devil, and which tells that story in a way which acknowledges both the love and the irredeemable mess. But unless I'm missing something huge, that's not the story Wiswell wanted to tell, so I'm left with another question: is there a version of this kind of story, where all we are meant to care about is the comfort of the main characters regardless of what they do to others, that is uncomplicatedly cosy and heartwarming? I don't know, but I'm going to go back to seeking out the messy, fucked up monster stories, and the radical empathy they often demand, rather than putting myself through this sort of book too often.