a list of cages robin roe book review

A List of Cages, Robin Roe: Book Review

Disney-Hyperion / Twitter
A List of Cages Book Cover A List of Cages
Robin Roe
Young Adult
Disney-Hyperion
January 10, 2017
320

When Adam Blake lands the best elective ever in his senior year, serving as an aide to the school psychologist, he thinks he’s got it made. Sure, it means a lot of sitting around, which isn’t easy for a guy with ADHD, but he can’t complain, since he gets to spend the period texting all his friends. Then the doctor asks him to track down the troubled freshman who keeps dodging her, and Adam discovers that the boy is Julian—the foster brother he hasn’t seen in five years.

Adam is ecstatic to be reunited. At first, Julian seems like the boy he once knew. He’s still kindhearted. He still writes stories and loves picture books meant for little kids. But as they spend more time together, Adam realizes that Julian is keeping secrets, like where he hides during the middle of the day, and what’s really going on inside his house. Adam is determined to help him, but his involvement could cost both boys their lives…

A List of Cages is, without a doubt, the most painfully beautiful thing I have read so far this year. If you are expecting A List of Cages to be a happy and uplifting read (as I initially did when I saw the cover months ago), you will be in for quite a surprise. In her debut novel, Robin Roe explores a few dark topics that are almost never covered in YA fiction. Including mental and physical abuse of a child, torture and mental illness in general, A List of Cages is a profoundly moving novel about how friendship can save a life.

This review contains quotes and spoilers from the book

From the start, a connection is formed between the reader and the main character of the book, a 14-year-old boy named Julian. It’s clear from the beginning that Julian has a difficult life. School is not easy for him; in fact, he is often treated poorly, even by his teachers. Julian is ostracized from his peers because he has dyslexia, which makes it difficult for him to read and write. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Julian has no real friends. All of this is made abundantly clear in the first chapter of A List of Cages, which is written in Julian’s perspective and makes it incredibly obvious that something is going on behind the scenes that has affected him both mentally and physically.

Early on, we see Julian struggle with social interaction. It’s obvious that Julian has trouble communicating with others; he stutters, and often times, chooses to forgo speech entirely out of fear and anxiety. His behavior only gets worse from there – Julian flinches upon contact with others and he spends most of his days hiding from his teachers and peers. As you make your way through the novel, you slowly but surely uncover the truth behind Julian’s behavior through a second character: Adam.

Told through the shifting perspectives of Julian and Adam, the reader becomes acquainted with both characters, who have shared a bond with one another since childhood. Through Adam’s memories, we learn about his connection to Julian, who is four years younger than him. While the reader is initially lead to believe that they know one another through Julian’s time as a foster child within Adam’s household, the two boys have been acquainted through school as well. As time goes by and they are reacquainted with one another, their bond and friendship grows exponentially and eventually ends up saving Julian’s life.

Hate ricochets, but kindness does too.

—excerpt from Robin Roe’s A List of Cages

A List of Cages examines the power that emotions hold over us. Despite Julian’s treatment at home, which quite frankly, is terrible, he lives life aware of the fact that emotions drive us to act in different ways. Although you could argue that Julian is in denial about the abuse that his uncle inflicts on him, both physically and mentally, his outlook on life is surprisingly optimistic. Instead of hating his uncle (as he should), he realizes that anger, unhappiness, and pain drive us to act in ways that will hurt others in order to make ourselves feel better. Whenever Julian faces abuse and torture at the hands of his uncle for simple mistakes and difficulties in school, he remembers the words of his mother, which help him to accept his fate and move on with life.

Instead she said no one was evil, only unhappy, and unhappiness festers inside like a sore.

—excerpt from Robin Roe’s A List of Cages

Through slight shifts in style, Roe is able to communicate the differences between the mental states of the characters. Although more mature in tone and style concerning his inner thoughts and desires, Adam is hyperactive and prone to jumping between activities and interests, characteristics that represent his ADHD. On the other hand, the sections that are written in Julian’s perspective are more childlike in nature. In particular, Julian is often prone to fantasy. He is fascinated by the little things in life and loves children’s stories. Reading and writing provide Julian with a means of escape, in addition to pleasant memories that involve his parents. He is wary about communicating with others and does what he can to please them, which demonstrate his anxiety and fear that have developed as a result of the abuse and manipulation of his uncle. Ultimately, through shifts in perspective that sometimes occur mid-chapter, Roe is able to convey two very different sides of a story that shed light on a number of issues that are normally ignored in literature and it’s a wonderful touch that makes A List of Cages stand out as a contemporary YA novel.

One of the incredible things that Roe is able to do within A List of Cages is inflict emotions upon the reader. Although the situations in the novel are not exactly familiar or relatable in most cases, Roe’s language conveys a substantial amount of emotion that evoke sympathy in the reader. While Adam’s acts of compassion and Julian’s fantasies bring forth pleasant imagery and make the reader feel pure joy, there are moments that will cause feelings of intense hatred, anger and unbelievable sadness as a result the actions that Russell inflicts upon Julian against his will, which is only made worse as they are told from Julian’s perspective. Be warned that A List of Cages, at times, features graphic images of physical and emotional abuse where Julian is concerned, providing the reader with the heart-breaking truth of hidden forms of abuse that sometimes linger behind the edges of our own reality.

It’s strange how many ways there are to miss someone. You miss the things they did and who they were, but you also miss who you were to them. The way everything you said and did was beautiful or entertaining or important. How much you mattered.

—excerpt from Robin Roe’s A List of Cages

Despite the very difficult and sometimes graphic themes and images that are hidden in the pages of A List of Cages, the novel is truly worth the read. Not only does it explore topics that everyone should be aware of, but it does so in a way that is easy to understand. While Roe explores the pain and unbearable sadness that come with loss and abuse, she also explores the wonder and joy that come with friendship. Affection and love can truly save a life.

There are so many wonderful moments between Julian and Adam that make A List of Cages a hopeful, rather than depressing read. Together, the two boys end up bringing out the best in each other. Through Adam’s compassion and patience, Julian is able to make friends. He is able to do better in school and even get a part in a play. Julian is given a chance to grow and trust others. Through his relationships with others, Julian is able to realize that he actually matters and it’s a beautiful thing.

A List of Cages is a hidden gem that will capture your heart from the very first page. Thanks to the simple, yet beautiful cover, I was introduced to a book that I would never have picked up had I read the synopsis alone. I never thought that a cover would represent a reoccurring object of hope in the novel, either. The use of stars throughout the novel was a great touch that really ties the entire story together as one that is actually, in the end, very happy and hopeful. A List of Cages is a roller coaster of emotion and it’s worth every second of your time.


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Melissa Ratcliff
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.