Pupa, by J.O. Morgan, is another triumph from the Henningham Family Press. The author has created a story of the pains and pleasures of young love – although the emotions portrayed are never described in this way – that is eerily disturbing. It explores repercussions when one party chooses to move in a new and unanticipated life direction.
The protagonists – Sal and Megan – are not human as we would understand the term, and yet they populate a world recognisable for its behaviours. The power of the novel comes from the skill with which this world is built and gradually revealed, avoiding detailed exposition yet giving the reader everything they need to know to understand why choices are made. What comes to the fore is how any future remains unknown until personally experienced, however much research and preparation is undertaken. Even those trusted will, at times, prove unpredictable.
The story is divided into two sections – early phase and late phase. It opens with Sal in bed at home recounting a dream, and provides the first descriptions of what we will learn are known as larvae – the juveniles of the population. Sal lives with his father, Madox, although this older being is also a larval.
Adults exist, such as a family acquaintance, Inspector Augustine, who claims he wants to help Sal with whatever decisions he makes. Free choice and support is available, but the young do not always fully understand or trust the vague promises and reassurances of their elders. Occasional transcripts from radio broadcasts suggest a strange type of propaganda is being deployed.
The larvae are humanoid if not human. The young are fragile creatures but as they grow become capable of working repetitively. I was drawn to examine, as the story unfolded, how every stage in their development can easily be transposed onto our own life choices and changes – emotional as well as physical. Any such comparison is subtle and nuanced, adding depth without clagging the flow of reveals.
Larvae can pupate and, in this world, it is a choice, but one that comes with risk. Lurking in the shadows are beings who choose to destroy potential lives, something Augustine’s job requires him to investigate and which he attempts to share with Sal.
There are areas of housing within the locality of the setting regarded as dodgy, in which goings on are kept hidden despite authorities being aware of what is likely happening there. Sal and Madox are just beginning to explore what lies beyond the routine of their safely controlled day to day, although doing so individually. Each wants to share with the other but fears their disapproval.
The undercurrents may be disturbing but this is not a horror story. Rather, it holds a mirror to our own supposed civilised existence, reflecting attributes that discomfort when stripped of veneer. The precision of the prose is impressive, enabling the plot to retain pleasing momentum even as it percolates.
The build up to the denouement is imaginative while oozing trepidation. The author skilfully renders some of the costs of maturation.
As with every book from this press, the physical form is something special. From the feel of the cover through the artistic end papers and quality typesetting, the complete product is a pleasure to hold and peruse. All this would, of course, add little if the story told were not so beguiling and engaging. An audacious and highly recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.