In his senior year of high school, Adam Blake becomes an aide to the school psychologist to fulfill an elective. When she gives him the task of bringing to her the elusive freshman who keeps dodging their sessions every chance he gets, Adam comes face-to-face with Julian- his foster brother he hasn’t seen in over four years. Adam’s excited to be reunited with his once-brother, but Julian’s changed since the time they lived together; he’s quieter, he’s secretive and he scuttles off to God knows where every lunch period. Little does Adam know that Julian’s life at home with his uncle is tumultuous to say the least, and when Adam and Julian’s world collides, danger looms.
A List of Cages is one of those books that you won’t be able to get out of your head, no matter how hard you try. It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what makes it tick; is it the beautifully fleshed out, lovable main characters, or the poetic simplicity with which Roe writes? Is it the undoubtable ability of the story to grip you and never let go, or the stunningly woven themes of friendship and kindness in a sea of books where both concepts are overlooked? There is so much that Roe does right, and the small things add up to bigger things which add up to the binding of ink and paper with a story this heart-achingly beautiful within.
For me, the characters are what made the story soar, especially because Julian served as a mirror; he reminded me a lot of myself, so much so that I wondered whether Roe had written the story about me. He’s socially awkward and extremely shy, choosing to spend his lunch periods in a secret hole he discovered at school. He’d rather sit in the dark, eat his food and read a childhood favorite than sit in a cafeteria where people would have the chance to make fun of him. He’s painfully polite; even when situations make him uncomfortable, he’ll sit through them because he doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings. He’s one of those characters that feels like such a real person that you can’t help but feel everything he feels. You can’t help but grow so fond, so attached to him that every horrible thing he goes through impacts you so emotionally.
Adam, too, feels incredibly real. His carnal desire to protect Julian from harm often leaves him paralyzed to do anything useful, which is something so realistic yet left unexplored in literature. He’s easygoing and amicable- popular, attractive, fun, but deeply flawed in his own ways. He didn’t resonate with me quite in the same way that Julian did, but he was a well-developed, lovable character that I’m sure will resonate with many others.
This novel explores so many important issues- it’s not just a sad, emotional story, but an important one at that. It explores the pitfalls of child protective services, the lack of useful resources to abused children, how trauma in childhood can deeply impact kids well into their lives. Adam has ADHD, and Julian is dyslexic, and neuro-diversity in literature is extremely important- the way it’s explored in the book, as aspects of each character but not letting it define either of them as people, is extremely well-done.
But despite my gushing, it had its flaws too. For one, there were so many secondary and peripheral characters, and while the secondary ones were sufficiently developed, the peripheral ones were largely flat and background noise. I also felt that Adam’s romantic storyline was unnecessary, and the time spent on his love story could have been employed to more development in the other characters- it would’ve been a stronger book had that happened. But it’s a cohesive story, beautifully written, extremely profound, and something that will stay with you long after you’ve closed it. Pick it up. Really. Do it.
Chronic child abuse (physical and emotional).