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Isla Morley – Above

Book Cover

Can’t let the monster in.

Publisher: Two Roads (Hachette)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-444-79700-8
First Published: 4th March 2014
Date Reviewed: 8th May 2014
Rating: 4/5

On the day of the parade, at sixteen years old, Blythe was abducted by the school librarian. Locking her in an old missile silo with provisions for many years, Dobbs told her he was protecting her from the apocalypse that was soon to hit. Unable to escape, Blythe is forced to live with him and his madness, his passive aggressiveness, his abuse, and she watches as he often leaves to go Above, back to the world he tells her is falling apart. Throughout, Blythe’s hope, though faded, never dies – one day she will escape and get back to her family. And Dobb’s madness can be put to rest. Or can it?

Above is an epic story that spans a fair few decades, many themes, and culminates in a rather tidy ending. It is an interesting book, as it could be said that it isn’t sure what it wants to be – there are two parts to the story that, whilst sharing a general element vary greatly – yet the overarching idea of theme exploration does manage to keep the two plots together.

Whilst the first half of the story is inevitably dull on occasion, the second half transforms the book into the afore-mentioned epic. Above is a lot longer than the almost 400 pages suggest, partly because the time scale is convincing and partly because there are so many moral elements considered.

Beyond the dullness of a lot of the first half – the days spent with nothing to do, the literal dullness of a world without sunlight – there is of course the times in which abuse takes place. Dobbs tends to ere on the side of caution, that is to say that generally the horror of Blythe’s situation is the fact of imprisonment and Dobb’s removal of things that make her happy. However, as may be expected, there is some violence involved. It’s a creepy sort of violence – Dobb’s doesn’t beat Blythe up but he does enough, and he does it in a ‘careful’ way as to make it sobering. Morley affectively shows how a person can seem average, even good, and keep a certain façade or even belief around them, which can make others think they are okay. Even Blythe, though she is strong at heart, feels sorry for him despite what he does to her.

This abuse and manipulation is the biggest thought of the novel. Morley puts the reader, and Blythe too, in a particular situation. We hate Dobbs because he is a bad man. There are no two ways about that – he forces himself on Blythe and his kidnapping does not begin and end with her. The man is bad. However once you reach the second half of the book you are presented with confusion. Blythe’s confusion. The confusion of both the prisoner she was and the person she is right then in that moment. This confusion doesn’t change the fact that Dobb’s is a bad person, but in the context of the book, and in the context of science fiction, it asks its main character and the reader questions. Blythe makes you question.

(The rest of this review will contain references to the twist in the tale, by necessity.)

Because what Dobb’s had been saying all along turns out to be true. Blythe has been abused by Dobbs, but she has also been protected. This means that Dobbs, in some ways, occupies a grey area. Both the character and the author herself constantly refer back to Dobbs, and it is obvious that Morley wants you to really hone in on this question of right and wrong. She never suggests Dobbs should be pardoned, of course he can’t, but she opens up all the sorts of thoughts we as a society tend to push aside. What exactly is right? What exactly is wrong? Can wrong ever be right, just a little bit? Do we truly try to understand victims or do we pretend we do? More than the questions surrounding Dobbs, Morley urges us to relate to Blythe.

Once you’re ‘familiar’ with this line of questioning, the rest of Morley’s ideas become apparent. Above isn’t ‘simply’ a story of abuse, nor an apocalyptic book. It is much more than that. It’s a study, a constant questioning of morality, of race, of government, of the news, of disability. The last on that list becomes prevalent towards the end. Most everyone is disfigured, and Morley compares viewpoints. Blythe, born before the apocalypse and kept safe, notices the disfigurements. Adam, her son, having lived solely below ground, doesn’t notice any differences. Or if he does (because he has read books and seen films) it doesn’t bother him. With Morley telling the story from Blythe’s viewpoint, every new person or group of people is detailed, their scars, burns, and lack of features brought to the forefront. You could even say it’s too much, that Blythe sees too much even after she’s been Above for a good few days. It’s interesting to contrast this detail with Blythe’s unhealthy pallor but ultimately flawless (as far as radiation is concerned) person. Especially when she notes her pale, now freckle-less face, and notes that her old crush would likely not find her attractive now. It takes us, the reader, to remember that, saying her crush is still alive, he is likely disfigured beyond compare.

Included in this study of the view of disability is the way the medical group of people are trying to create a perfect baby (to recreate humanity as it was) and the group of average citizens who are saving the creations who haven’t turned out correctly. This is now a world that values difference. Difference is all there is.

There are other things to consider, such as Blythe’s naming her son Adam – a stated plot device that infers who Adam may end up to be – and the experience, though only a minor part of the story, of a black albino woman. There is the effect that sudden freedom can have on a person, the effect of a difference that wasn’t expected (of course this particular difference wasn’t expected, but you know that Blythe would never be returning to life as it was when she was sixteen, the world moves on, and this is what she hasn’t really thought about), the struggle to regain what’s loss, and control, possession. In Adam you see the world in a new light, literally and metaphorically, in Blythe you may end up appreciating what we have now just that little bit more.

Above isn’t a masterpiece. There is a disjointedness to the duel plot-line that is likely only to be healed with prior knowledge of the duality, the writing is average, and once Blythe has escaped she’s not quite the person you may expect or even like, and not simply because of her displacement and longing for the past. The epic nature also makes it seem a little too long and there are reports from people familiar with Kansas that the numbers aren’t correct. But the morality and the way Morley uses a society harmed in order to make her point clearer is good to read and, as the length of this review suggests, leaves you with plenty to think about.

Combining ideas and repeating details, Above may not be the book you were expecting it to be, but judged on contents alone it is very much worth the read and the time it takes to reach the end.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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The Mole

May 9, 2014, 8:42 am

Interesting take… Is there not a risk that you are over analysing?

Whether Dobbs is right or wrong… He’s wrong on every level (in my opinion). (1) He should not have done what he did in the first place (2) The disaster that overtakes society is nothing like the disaster he predicted and was a totally natural phenomenon (if it hadn’t occurred he would have been 20 times more wrong?) (3) At no point did he discuss and explain what was happening outside with Blythe let alone present any evidence to support it.

Blythe’s relationship with Dobb’s was one of pure hate tempered by trying to manipulate him as in a game of chess. I found the first part dull at no point in time – although I did get confused with the way time kept disappearing – days,weeks, years.

Overall I read it as a story and did not attempt to read any messages into it and Blythe’s questions about Dobbs in the second half do not in any way justify Dobbs’s behaviour.Maybe that was Stockholm syndrome kicking in late?


May 9, 2014, 1:09 pm

The Mole: Oh I could be over-analysing, I know, but the sheer amount of wondering Blythe does, it’s hard to overlook it. Dobbs was wrong, end of, and yes he did hold back information, but Blythe almost forces you to reflect, even if you know you’re not going to change your mind.

Regarding dullness, I mean the literal days she was spent doing nothing, how those odd moments of Blythe’s acceptance allow you to see other elements.

It could have been Stockholm Syndrome, certainly, but with the reveal half-way through it’s more difficult to say it was than it might ‘usually’ be. I’d say this is where the issue with the two genres being together rears its head. On the one hand you’ve got this horror story of abduction, on the other your average apocalyptic tale, and referring back to questions, it’s hard to say they’d still be there if not for that (this is why I’d agree that I could be over-analysing). That said, Blythe’s thoughts of running back are interesting to consider, and if that had been taken further the gap between the two plots might have been bridged. I do think the second plot lessens the effect, so to speak, of the first.


May 9, 2014, 10:14 pm

I wonder about this one

The Mole

May 9, 2014, 10:24 pm

You are right about the two halves – it’s as if a switch is thrown and we move from a crime/horror/thriller to a regular dystopian novel. Although Blythe’s unique view as she steps into the new world rather than the world she expected is done well and is interesting. Yes, if she had returned it might have joined the halves better… It could have been done better but I feel having finished it a few days ago now, that the first part almost feels like it was a device to get to the start of the second part thus the first part – for me – is now diminished which is a crying shame.

Literary Feline

May 11, 2014, 5:09 am

A friend read this recently and is trying to talk me into reading it. I admit I am having trouble drumming up interest.

It sounds like a novel with quite a bit going on. I’d have to be able to make it through the first part of the novel, I think, which right now I’m not sure I want to take on. It does sound like a book that would make a great discussion book though. So, maybe someday.



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