A.S. King’s Dig, and More of the Best Surrealist YA

Bleak, beautiful, and bewildering, Dig is A.S. King’s eleventh book and one of the least-categorizable novels of this still-young year. King is no stranger to the strange, marking each of her novels with a signature surreal touch. Her books are populated with pirates cursed to centuries in the bodies of one hundred mutts; teenagers plagued by their past and future selves on the streets of Philadelphia; and girls who gain the ability to see a person’s past and future, from ancestors to descendants.

Weird yet prescient, her novels often tackle huge cultural trauma and troubles through a warped lens. And Dig carries on that tradition with a multigenerational look at the Hemmings family tree, rotting at the roots. Poverty, family abuse and trauma, bigotry, and neglect mar the lives of the grandchildren of the wealthy Gottfried and Marla. Unknowing of their relationships with each other, the teens at the center of this story—the Freak, the Shoveler, CanIHelpYou?, Loretta Lynn, and Malcolm—interweave in dizzying, daring, and sometimes grotesque ways.

The result is a surrealist triumph that’s difficult to describe and, at times, difficult to read. But Dig will leave you wanting more, with a desire to recapture its dreamlike discomfort. So we’ve rounded up some more surreal YA favorites to do just that.

Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick
Often described as a YA Cloud Atlas, Midwinterblood is trippy. We start in the year 2073 with a journalist, Eric, who’s researching a mysterious breed of orchid on Blessed Island. There, he falls instantly for Merle, a native of the island. Sedgwick then peels the story back through the centuries, all the way to pre-history, focusing each time on characters named Eric and Merle. Seven distinct stories, filled to the brim with recurring motifs, develop a mythos around this out-of-time pair.

Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby
Bone Gap, Illinois, is aptly named. In this teensy rural town, people have a way of disappearing, slipping out of time, maybe out of this reality, like sand through a sieve. Roza, the girlfriend of Finn’s brother, is the latest to slip away. Finn witnessed Roza’s abduction but is able to provide few helpful details when asked. Told in alternating perspectives, Finn and Roza attempt to find an escape for her from a perverse and fantastical prison.

Places No One Knows, by Brenna Yovanoff
The supernatural makes a slight yet significant intrusion in this tale of mismatched romance and redemption. Queen bee Waverly Camdenmar is in a bit of a crisis of confidence, and it’s keeping her awake at night. Marshall Holt, meanwhile, spends most of his time drinking or getting stoned. The two couldn’t be more removed from one another. Except at night, when Waverly does manage to fall asleep and somehow visits Marshall in dreams.

Release, by Patrick Ness
This emotionally turbocharged novel runs its course over a single day in the life of Adam Thorn, the gay son of a fervently evangelical preacher. It’s a difficult day for a boy whose sexual identity is a thorn in the side of his family. What tilts the narrative toward the surreal are the interstitial chapters revealing a different parallel story: the dreamlike haunting by the ghost of a murdered girl. How the two threads intertwine is nothing short of masterful.

The Grief Keeper, by Alexandra Villasante
Out in June, Villasante’s debut already promises to be a story to remember. Afraid for her life, seventeen-year-old Marisol flees her native El Salvador to seek asylum in the United States. Caught at the border, Marisol is presented with an unusual and daunting requirement to stay in the U.S.: become a grief keeper. To ensure the safety of herself and her little sister, Marisol agrees to join an experimental study in which she will take on the trauma and grief of others, carrying it in her own body.

When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore
In this sweeping, star-crossed blend of surrealism and magical realism, Miel, the girl with roses growing out of her wrists, and Sam, the transgender boy known for his painted moons, are inseparable. Their shared “otherness” in their town bonds them, even as both have secrets of their own. When the witchy Bonner sisters decide Miel’s gift is exactly what they need, their quest for the roses threatens to break all of those secrets wide open.

Jane, Unlimited, by Kristin Cashore
There are no two ways about it: Jane, Unlimited is a lot of novel, traversing five genres with a choose-your-own-adventure plot. After the death of her aunt, eighteen-year-old Jane receives an invitation from her former tutor to come to her family’s mansion, Tu Reviens, a house that quickly reveals itself to be one of the shiftiest estates this side of Clue. From there, the story goes forward, backward, sideways, and slantways through five sections, each revealing the house’s secrets in unique ways and taking Jane down different paths.

Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer
After her boyfriend, Reeve, dies, Jam is packed off to a rural Vermont boarding school to recover from her grief. She’s not overly hopeful about the Wooden Barn’s ability to help her move on until something strange happens in an English class. Through journaling, Jam’s able to travel to Belzhar, some kind of alternate reality where things are as they should be and she can be with Reeve once more. The concern: what happens when she reaches the last page of the journal?

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