Kat Zhang’s What’s Left of Me came with high praise from Lauren de Stefano, one of my favourite YA authors, so I had a good feeling about it when I picked it up. The goodness of that feeling only increased as I started reading and quickly got sucked into the story; this really is an innovative and unique storyline, and it’s fantastic, and I am looking forward immensely to further entries in the Hybrid Chronicles. It’s a stellar debut that shows Zhang has a lot of potential talent, and I think she’s going to develop into a fantastic writer.
Eva and Addie live in a world where everyone is born with two souls living intertwined in the same body. As they grow up, they take turns in control and facing out to the world, until a dominant soul takes over and the recessive soul quietly dies off. This is accepted as normal and appropriate, and when recessive souls do not go quietly into this good night, it’s a developmental abnormality; the result is a Hybrid, someone to be considered dangerous and frightening. In the futuristic United States of their world, the country has isolated itself to protect itself from Hybrids, halting immigration and policing everyone to make sure no Hybrids walk the streets.
Which makes life dangerous for Eva and Addie, because Eva, as Addie’s recessive soul, shouldn’t exist. But she does, deep inside, and while she’s hidden from the people around them, she starts to think that another life might be possible when they meet other Hybrids living in secret, and discover the truth about how the United States has controlled the Hybrid population and abused children in the name of protecting people from what’s termed a sickness, an aberration, an anomaly.
This is a novel with a large number of complex and fascinating threads tied together very, very well. One of these threads is xenophobia and racism; since the US has isolated itself, people who appear obviously ‘other’ are viewed with suspicion and targeted. Class and social status are very much determined by your physical appearance and if you don’t look white and normal enough, you’re considered second-rate. In Addie’s struggle to fit in and not attract attention, she attempts to avoid the people who might get her branded as an outcast, but they are ultimately the ones who hold the key to unlocking Eva and allowing her to fully experience the world, so the two battle with each other over their life and their destiny.
It would be a mistake to call What’s Left of Me an issue book, but race is an unavoidable issue and it’s handled deftly and well. I was very much reminded of the anti-Chinese immigration laws passed in the United States in an attempt to limit undesirable immigration with the framing of the story and the handling of immigrants, and What’s Left of Me poses some sharp, provocative questions about our current stance on immigration, which is becoming increasingly isolationist.
People in the US are taught that outside the country, Hybrids run rampant and countries endure endless war and strife, making it critical to keep the borders closed. And to report anyone who seems suspicious, including any person who might be a Hybrid in disguise. But the reality is considerably different, and the immigrants, as well as the Hybrids, people are taught to fear are, of course, ordinary people doing ordinary things. I love how Zhang managed to brilliantly sneak in some racial criticism without making it clunky.
And, of course, What’s Left of Me is also about a very specific and fascinating experience that I see more authors just starting to probe; an extension of the ‘imaginary friend’ and a play with the idea of a reality in which ‘imaginary’ isn’t quite what we think it is. Sarah Rees Brennan did it with Unspoken, where Kami’s ‘imaginary’ friend turned out to be a real human being, and in What’s Left of Me, two souls are so tightly bound in the same body that their seamless communications make up an important part of their tandem experience and existence. This is a world in which a body houses more than one spirit, and each soul is a whole, distinct, and fully realised identity.
It’s great worldbuilding and a fascinating premise, and Zhang handles it really, really well. The narrative structure is also fascinating, with Eva telling the story, distinguishing between herself and ‘us,’ her and Addie, with accompanying verbal gymnastics that Zhang kept very neat and graceful, considering how complicated things got at times. It’s a delightful book if you like dystopians with creative premises that jump outside the box a bit, and if you enjoy some conspiracy theories along with your reading, but especially if you like YA that quietly, and firmly, integrates commentary on larger social issues.
What’s Left of Me forces the reader to confront norms, ask about what ‘reality’ should look like, and think about how people are pathologised. It also delves into uncomfortable conversations about immigration, xenophobia, and how the way you look determines your treatment and status in society. If the rest of the Hybrid Chronicles live up to the promise of What’s Left of Me, I have a lot to be excited about, because I want to see what happens with these characters, and also what happens within the context of their larger world; where they’re going to go, who they’re going to see, and how they’re going to crack their unjust and abusive government wide open, exposing the realities of their world for the rest of society.