Completed 10/5/2018, Reviewed 10/5/2018
What a bizarre novella. This short book is a Lambda Literary Award winner for 2013. It’s a post-apocalyptic coming of age tale about a gay boy who is changed into a plant-human. The prose is gorgeous, but the story is very surreal. It doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s mostly a reflection mutation and growing up. There are environmental overtones to the story, but not it doesn’t really hit you over the head with it. I liked the story a lot mostly because of its weirdness and its beautiful language.
The story takes place after the Red Wars. There is very little description of the wars, only that it devastated the environment. Leaf is a baby when the wars begin. He is touched by a genie box wand and becomes transformed into a plant-based human. He is green, feeds on sunlight, drinks dew, and is cared for by his nanny on what’s left of a Victorian house on a small island in the Florida Keys. You get the impression that both his parents were killed in the wars. He has one friend, a manta ray boy, Skate, who lives in the sea around the Key. After his nanny dies, he lives alone, until a strange black boy with some reptilian scales shows up on the Key. Named Scallop, he becomes good friends with Leaf and Skate. One day Scallop’s father, a fisherman, disappears, possibly taken by pirates. The boys go in search of him, eventually leading them to what’s left of Miami, a home of pirates and their slaves.
The basic plot is very straight forward, but the science fiction/fantasy aspect is very surreal. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if this is really SF or fantasy, or a fusion of the two. It’s dystopian, post-apocalyptic, which makes it SF, and the science of Leaf as a plant boy is very well thought out. Leaf can make tea out of the petals growing out of his neck. His green blood and pollen have healing properties. And he can grow new body parts out of cuttings of himself. But how he became a plant boy, via the magic genie box, seems more like fantasy, even though it is about altering DNA. The adventures the boys go on are very surreal, more like a fantasy than SF. I won’t give away any spoilers, but the last chapter and coda are also very surreal, more fantasy or even magical realism. It’s worth reading slowly because it’s very strange.
One thing I didn’t like about the story was that there wasn’t much dialogue. So we don’t really get to know Leaf and Scallop very well. It’s all described third person from Leaf’s point of view, but the characterization is lacking. Still the story is quite beautiful, even when it takes you to decaying communities where people are living a dire existence. Specifically, the tribal dance and the drunken hotel scenes are quite descriptive and emotionally gripping.
The gay content is there, but it’s not overwhelming. I felt it was portrayed quite normally, although Leaf’s reproductive organs are anything but normal. He doesn’t have a penis, he has a stamen. Despite this strangeness, the two boys love each other.
I give the book four stars out of five. I loved the prose and although the surreal qualities were at times mind-boggling, especially at the end, it was brilliantly done. I think the one thing that could have made it better would have been more dialogue, and I think a writer like Cardamone could have easily added some without destroying the mood of the book.