The Upper World by Femi Fadugba. HarperTeen, HarperCollins, 2021. 9780063078598
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3.5
Genre: Science fiction
What did you like about the book? In this ambitious and topical time travel story set in the world of South London street gangs, two teens separated by 15 years use physics to try to change the future. In the past, Esso lives with his mom, an immigrant from Bénin. Already on thin ice at school, his tangential connection to gangs competes with his desire to walk the straight and narrow. Esso didn’t know his father, but finds a journal full of dad’s insane-sounding musings about physics and “The Upper World”, a realm where all history exists simultaneously. Meanwhile, Rhia lives in the near future, where surveillance and implantable devices make for a slightly advanced take on the present day. A talented footballer but indifferent student, Rhia meets the adult Esso, who mysteriously volunteers to tutor her. Rhia lives with her foster family but longs to learn about her birth mother and miraculously, Esso may be the key to finding out about her fate. Fadugba, who has a masters in physics, makes his YA debut with this book and goes to some lengths to explain how to get from science to science fiction when it comes to time travel, with Esso and Rhia’s tutoring sessions providing background information and even diagrams. As with many time travel stories, the author is interested in exploring the question of fate versus free will. Given the London setting, the explicit, heart-pounding, and tragic story arc, and the science fiction elements, this certainly added up to a unique offering. All of the main characters cue as Black.
Anything you didn’t like about it? Fadugba employed one of my least favorite narrative techniques: alternating chapters focusing on each of the two characters. I was interested in Rhia’s story, which was more straightforward and compelling; she was also, for me, the more likeable character. Further complicating the situation, the characters in Esso’s timeline speak using heavy doses of London slang that often became impenetrable. British readers may have an easier time with it; I think U.S. teens would find it slow going. I also found the time travel elements confounding (although that’s often the case!).
To whom would you recommend this book? Ultimately, this wasn’t the book for me, although physics fans looking for a fast-paced story with characters of color may have better luck with it than I did. Strong language, violence, and mature situations make it a better fit for older teens.
Who should buy this book? High school and public libraries
Where would you shelve it? YA fiction
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: December 28, 2021