Review: A List of Cages by Robin Roe


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…

RATING: ☆★☆★

I don’t know how a book can splinter in my mind with a haze of pain around it, make tears spring unbidden to my eyes and generally feel as though I was seeing into a bottomless well of anguish, but then, right when I thought the flint shell of my heart would crack, it hits me with a keen pang of hope and sets like a little ball of tingling warmth in the pit of my stomach.

A List of Cages is a beautiful, soul-crushing love letter to friendships that heal the broken pathways of your heart and hope that can’t be washed away by the torrent of despair, to the pain we survive in youth and to the courage it takes to will your fragments into finding a way to mesh back together into a single person. It’s a reminder that we are better than the worst things that we’ve been made to endure. But mostly, this book was a sigh of relief at the knowledge that kindness can exist in this world, and the mournful remorse of kindness existing in a world that doesn’t really deserve it.

After the death of his parents in a tragic accident, Julian Harlow’s life had smashed and spilled him tumbling away from the loving foster home of Adam Blake and his mother into the brutal guardianship of his uncle. Five years later, Adam—a senior—is assigned the duty of escorting a freshman to the counseling sessions he persists in skipping. The freshman is none other than his former foster brother, Julian.

Adam is thrilled to be reunited with his friend, but the years have remade Julian into a shadow version of himself and no matter how much Adam tried to root through what was hidden in the labyrinth of Julian’s memories, his burden was to feel all the pain of Julian’s unspoken torment, and not know how to help him. But while Adam was thinking of Julian’s bruises and frequent absences and his uncle’s house that conjured no feeling of “home”, another thought tiptoed between them. It was sly, odious and unnameable, and it waited to be noticed…

In this book, we see the vast extent of damage abuse—both physical and emotional—inflicts on survivors. How weary one’s chest becomes from carrying all the repeated hope and disappointment and how so used they become to every-day life being painful that they begin to doubt any path that doesn’t come with agony. We see how abusers learn to masquerade as things that wouldn’t seem threatening to get close enough to strike and how oftentimes they’re the same people who are supposed to protect you from the ravages of the world but instead wrap their manipulations in the chain of the security and sense of self-worth which they claim to offer you.

But nothing broke my heart more than how quick everyone—his classmates, his teachers, his principle—was to fill Julian’s silences with their own interpretation: He was depressed. He was awkward. He was weird. He was stuck up. He was judgmental. They couldn’t read him so they wrote their own story, and they didn’t care enough to see into the pain that traced along each one of his unspoken scars. They were all continuously watching this massive, looming thing over Julian’s life to which they were supposed to promptly apply the adjective dangerous and immediately act. But they didn’t—not until it was too late anyway. And the fact that Robin Roe herself is a counselor and a mentor for at-risk teenagers who must have encountered many cases like this in real life still nudges at the dark of my thoughts.

A List of Cages was heart-breakingly hard to read, yes, but I’m grateful for the bedrock of love and affection that was always there, because the real story, ultimately, is in the relationships. This is a book that drips with love and approaches its characters with a whole-hearted delight in their differences, similarities, and connections—Adam’s utter, unflinching aura of love that was all around him and Julian’s jangling, nerve-racking, mind-screaming strength.

Julian and Adam’s friendship made me cry. That friendship was the moon, the gentle glow that illuminated the darkness around Julian. It made it easier to see the path stretching before him, and Julian stumbled less in its light, and found himself looking up at it in awe. It’s that friendship and it’s that kindness that eventually uncovers the border between hope and despair that had become lost in the fear.

I think the greatest takeaway from this book is that maybe there’s not much any of us can do: you’re small and weak and helpless and you can be so clumsy with words when words mean so much. But you know you can be kind. And sometimes, I believe, that changes the world. Or just someone’s world. So please, please, if anything, just be kind.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: violence, emotional and physical abuse.

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