I could NOT put this book down. From the moment I met Julian and Adam, the two narrators of Robin Roe’s debut novel A List of Cages, I was immediately invested. This is a book with so much to say, but its messages are never didactic. It’s horrifying and heart-warming in equal measure.
So, Julian, aged 14, is a loner. He has just started high school and he is friendless and often in trouble at school – even though he does his level best to make himself invisible. When he’s called to the principal’s office he calls himself “a microscopic boy”; his English teacher tells him he’s “too quiet” and the other kids are horrible to him. He eats lunch alone in a small room in the attic of the auditorium. There he can dream about the life he used to have.
Adam is a senior. He’s a popular kid and even though Julian has “only been in this school for a little while…heard his name a hundred times, mostly from girls who are in love with him.” Adam is happy, clumsy, and popular.
Adam and Julian have history, though. When Adam was in Grade 4 and Julian in kindergarten, they worked together to improve Julian’s reading skills. When Julian’s parents are tragically killed in an accident when he is 9, he goes to live with Adam and his single mom, who is a social worker. The arrangement falls apart when Julian’s Uncle Russell turns up out of the blue and claims him.
Their reunion is awkward at first. Julian is shy and distrustful, but it doesn’t take long for him to figure out that Adam is, above all else, kind. And Julian could certainly use a little kindness in his life.
It won’t take readers long to figure out that Russell is a monster – there’s really no other word to describe him. Roe drops clues early on and I have to admit to feeling very uneasy from the first couple of pages. Maybe it’s the mother in me; maybe it’s the teacher, but either way, I knew that Julian was neglected for sure, and certainly not safe.
The first time Russell ever punished me was for hanging a picture in this room. I should have checked with him first, I know that now, but I didn’t think to do so at the time. In my old room I could hang pictures whenever I wanted. Russell’s punishment wasn’t all that severe, but that had never happened to me before, and it shocked me. After it was over, he asked if I would nail holes into a stranger’s wall.
Roe’s book is a wonderful reminder of how little we know about the lives of others. Our snap judgments and cruel remarks never take into account what the subject of our derision might be facing on a daily basis. Adam is naturally empathetic. Even Julian notes that while “Hate ricochets…kindness does, too”.
A List of Cages is important, genuine and brimming over with heart.
I can’t recommend it highly enough.