Book review: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

In 1993, ABBA released a song by way of More ABBA Gold that they first recorded in 1982 – “I Am the City” gave a persona to the urban conurbations most people now live in and replete with a pounding, upbeat insistent beat and penetrating lyrics, it felt like the city had sprung alive, vibrant, busy, manic and very much gloriously in our face.

Much-lauded and three-time Hugo Award-wing author N. K. Jemison has now provided the literary equivalent to this fine piece of captivating pop, offering up in The City We Became a grippingly enthralling story in which the city of New York, like many other cities before it, comes alive.

And by alive, we mean that it pours its very essence into six people – one who personifies all of the city, a heavy mantle for anyone but particularly for the person who is given that honour, and five others who represent each of the boroughs of the one of the greatest cities on earth.

New York, even in what is called its “peoplesphere” incarnation, is a willfully, fantastically, brilliantly alive and roiling city, one in which people can either find their fortune or comprehensively lose it, where opportunity and loss sit side-by-side, a place with as much good as bad.

Jemisin, who is a longtime resident of the city, brings these qualities out in her transcendently brilliant novel which launches off a spectacularly imaginative premise to tell the kind of tale that is near impossible to put down or walk away from until you reach the last heart-pounding page.

“The Enemy is as quintessential to nature as any city. We cannot be stopped from becoming, and the Enemy cannot be made to end. I hurt only a small part of it—but I know damn well I sent that part broken. Good. Time ever comes for that final confrontation, it’ll think twice about taking me on again.

Me. Us. Yes. (P. 19)

It’s not however an action-oriented novel as such.

There is plenty happening of course as the five people who are at the centre of the story – New York itself only makes its presence felt towards the end – grapple with becoming the very personification of the treasured places in which they live or want to live, but it is ultimately a deeply empathetic exploration of the characters and the issue that come to bear on their lives, fantastical transformation or not.

The City We Became is such a vibrantly immersive and thought-provoking read because it focuses much of its attention on the people at the heart of its astoundingly clever and empathetic narrative.

These are characters who, city personification or not, have real, grounded, meaningful lives, lives which are completely rent asunder by events that would confound even the most open and changeable of us.

In short order, a newly-arrived grad student loses his memory of who he is and becomes the very flesh-and-blood essence of Manhattan while in the Bronx, a Lenape public art gallery director finds herself graffiti artwork encountering so viscerally full of vigour and potency that it feels like it is about to come off the walls.

Meanwhile in Brooklyn a mother struggles with the potential loss of many things as a young woman on Staten Island and one in Queens come to grips in wholly different ways with what their new destiny means to them.

N. K. Jemisin (image courtesy Wikipedia)

It is by any measure extraordinarily mesmerising writing that lures you in with quiet character-driven build-up, drawing on an examination of trenchant issues such as immigration, racism, the rise of the so-called Alt Right (really, fascism) and broken pasts before letting loose with a final act that is as much about why it happens and who it happens to as what takes place.

The City We Became, is in other words, a ferociously intelligent novel that never loses itself in its studied thoughtfulness to the point where it loses sight of the humanity at its heart.

It is a love letter, warts and all, to New York, and of course, all big cities, honouring what makes them so attractive to us but also why they can be destructive in ways we are not even aware of and seldom have to deal with.

It is impossible to say what form this destruction takes without giving away a great deal of the magnificent world-building as its vaultingly imaginative heart, but suffice to say, something as big and sprawling and all encompassing as a city cannot offer the bewildering array of options and possibilities that it does without leaving an immense amount of collateral damage in its wake.

The brilliance of The City We Became is that it is unceasingly honest about this struggle between the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, admitting with candour and vigour that the very best of things such as a city as awe-inspiring as New York always attached to the very worst of things too.

“At this, Queens flinches. ‘I want to save people! You think I don’t? But we don’t even know if this will work …’ And then she trails off, wincing, her shoulders sag in defeat. ‘But … ah, shit.'” (P. 416)

Sporting a magically urban vibe that feels otherworldly and removed even as it is deeply, groundedly human, the novel is a feast of ideas, emotions, hopes and dreams, the distillation of what drives all of us when we set out to make something of our lives, especially if that takes place in a city.

No one’s life is lived in a vacuum, whether that be free from ideas, people, emotional turmoil or outside influences, and Jemisin evokes that powerfully and affectingly well, giving us compelling, very human characters who don’t react perfectly to their new lives, who aren’t necessarily heroes or villains, simply people who are struggling to make sense of a wholly unexpected twist in their lives.

The City We Became speaks to you because for all its immensity of ideas and spirit, it is at heart a story about the intimacy of the human experience, about the need all of us have to belong, to be beloved, to matter.

Each of the characters react very realistically to wholly unreal circumstances, bringing forth a sense of truthfulness and authenticity to a story which is by any measure a fantastic feat of imagination that could’ve all too easily, in lesser hands, felt overwhelmingly removed and hard to relate to in any sort of meaningful way.

Jemisin’s breathtakingly good skill as a writer is that she can take events that are beyond anything we know or can comprehend, in which we could easily lose ourselves in the midst of their sheer grandeur and fantastical immensity and grounds them and makes them relatable and heartfelt, meaningful and very human.

The City We Became embodies all of the very best of her considerable craft and talent, drawing us into a story that captures the very essence of what it means to be alive, in a city, in a place where so much is possible but only at considerable cost and only if we are willing to thoughtfully and with self-sacrificial self-awareness give ourselves entirely over to it.

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