Colleen Mondor Reviews The Upper World by Femi Fadugba
The Upper World, Femi Fadugba (Penguin UK 978-0-24-150561-8, £7.99, 368pp, tp) August 2021. (Harper Teen 978-0-06-307859-8, $18.99, 368pp, hc) December 2021.
In a note to readers preceding his perceptive debut title, The Upper World, author Femi Fadugba recalls a quantum physics paper he wrote as a university student which was published in a respected scientific journal leading to a national award and presentation before the Houses of Parliament. Fadugba did not come from a privileged background and his quest to combine the disparate aspects of his childhood with his grand academic achievements led to the crafting of this compelling time travel novel. In telling the story of Esso, who is stuck in a week from hell with seemingly no way out that won’t end violently, and Rhia, who fifteen years later meets a math tutor who seems to know more about her than he should, Fadugba displays not only great heart but also compelling discussions about the beauty and power of physics.
Esso, today, lives in South London with his single mother and navigates a world dominated by the whims of several gangs, all of which are populated by kids he grew up with. Between his hopeless crush on classmate Nadia, moderately successful grades, and goofy but reliable friends, he usually has a pretty uneventful life. But then there is a slip in class, a casual moment on the street that results in total catastrophe, and Esso subsequently becomes involved in a brutal fight in the school cafeteria that results in what looks an awful lot like an informational shakedown from his willfully obtuse principal. Events get out of control faster than anyone can stop them, with a looming convergence that Esso knows spells disaster. In the middle of it all, a clash with his mother leads to unexpected insight into his father’s work and, with it, a glimmer of hope. But everything is too fast to stop, it will take time, and navigating that time is what Esso must learn how to do.
Flashing forward 15 years in alternate chapters, there is the story of Rhia and her interactions with a tutor named Esso who is determined to teach her about the beauty of physics. Their lessons, which contain some gorgeous writing about the complexity of math and science, include passages like this one:
“Personally, I think the real reason people find both physics and math difficult” – he held a breath – “is that they both require imagination.”
As if he’d heard me mocking him in my mind, he carried on explaining. “Physics asks you to believe that just by looking at a few lines of maths scribbled down on a piece of paper, you can see a fuller version of the world – of other worlds, even. Things you would have sworn couldn’t exist. Physics asks you to believe in miracles.”
Fadugba reveals the connection between Esso and Rhia with great care, as she uncovers more about her personal history and how it may have connected with him and that one bad week when he was teenager. What he knows about her, and how he hopes she can help him in the past, is the main source of the book’s tension. In an emotional final few pages, there is much to learn about family and friendship and how time travel might indeed work. Fadugba also includes some appendices illustrating the math problems Esso and Rhia tackle in the course of the narrative.
I have continued to think about The Upper World for weeks after turning the final page. It manages to be both emotionally intense and mathematically intriguing, a title that appeals on multiple levels and succeeds on each of them. Fadugba is such a good writer, someone who solidly captures teen angst (and trauma) while also crafting some engaging academic problems that I honestly never thought I would consider pondering. He has crafted something distinctive and special with The Upper World, a striking look at the times we live in, and how tough it can be to save the day, even when you’re trying with everything you’ve got.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.
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