The Nest tells the story of older brother Steve, who struggles to cope with anxiety and his family’s concerns over his baby brother, who is sick with a congenital illness. After being stung by a white wasp, he gains the ability to speak with the queen of the hive built on the side of his house. She offers to fix the baby, all Steve has to do is agree. But the queens promises might not mean what he thinks it does, and with his family growing concerned about his mental health, Steve must decide how to help his brother.
I got this little lovely for Christmas from my cousin, whom I gave a Kenneth Oppel book to a few years back (Airborn, which is fantastic by the way). An Oppel book for an Oppel book makes for happy readers, it seems as I found it to be a quick, fun read.
Though a fair bit different from the action packed adventure of the Airborn books, The Nest maintains Oppel’s ability to engage readers. The exchanges between Steve and the queen wasp were particularly captivating. They are oddly unsettling, even in the beginning when Steve mistakes her for an angel. In fact, the nature of the queen reminded me of the Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Both offer the idea of perfection and grow into truly unsettling and threatening figures (seems like I wasn’t the only one who made this connection, Publisher’s Weekly called The Nest “Gaimanesque”).
Another strength of the novel was the scientific elements that both inform Steven and add to his uneasiness. These scientific bits are seamlessly integrated (like in The Thing About Jellyfish) through the character of Vanessa, Steve’s babysitter and an undergrad student. Her presence in the novel not only provides this science background, but also underscores the absence of Steve’s parents, who are often out of the house working and dealing with the baby’s doctors. This absence creates a sense of isolation around Steve, which makes Steve’s initial views on his communication with the wasps understandable – he wants attention and desires the completeness of his family.
Since I’m drawing comparisons, I might as well point out that the relationship between older and sick younger brother is very similar to the one depicted in House Arrest. Like Timothy, Steve looks out for his younger sibling and is willing to protect him in any way he can. Steve’s love for and feelings of responsibility toward his little brother create tension with his desire for things to be as they once were, offering the wasps something to build their offer on and creating a very real sense of what is on the line.
Despite the similarities to these other novels, Oppel’s writing remains original and captivating. While the plot addresses the serious matters of illness, mental health, and even presents some ethical and philosophical questions, it never speaks down to audience it’s meant for, which is always appealing in children’s lit, in my opinion.
The strong prose is accompanied by illustrations by Jon Klassen. These illustrations definitely build on the dark subject matter through selective use of white and lighter shades (the images are not coloured) and the unusual angles and perspectives depicted. I especially like how the characters themselves are never fully depicted, focusing instead on images where only feet or extremities are shown. I believe this is an effective way of activating readers’ imaginations while engaging interest, and that it fits perfectly with the tone of the novel.
Final verdict: The Nest is a concise, elegant, dark read that captures the varying roles and emotions of an older sibling in a tough situation. It provides an important look into anxiety in young children, reminding that children are very perceptive of the world around them.