When the Unspoken Becomes Unspeakable: Lakelore by Anna-Marie McLemore

There is a world under the lake, and once upon a time everyone knew about it.

These days, only Bastián is able to find it—until they meet Lore, who is able to join them in the lake-world. Here, colours are brighter and fantastical creatures are possible, and the sea grass and water thyme sway around their hair. It’s beautiful, and it’s also a little bit wrong. So when the world under the lake begins to bleed into the everyday, Bastián and Lore have to reckon with the idea that the lakelore isn’t just a separate bit of magic, but is in fact intertwined with their own flawed ways of being in the world.

Both have wounds, and both have secrets. To weather the storms that the lake will bring, the two of them will have to choose: they can carry on the way they’ve been, or they can do something truly terrifying—let others really see them.

This book, with its gorgeous cover, has been sitting on my shelf for awhile, and I was inspired to read it this week for the #TransRightsReadathon. And while being trans and nonbinary is definitely part of Bastián and Lore’s stories, this book was more about neurodivergence than gender identity.

Feiwal and Friends, 2022

Lakelore paints a portrait of what it’s like living with ADHD (Bastián) and dyslexia (Lore). They both work incredibly hard to adapt themselves to a world that is not built for the way they function. And the effort to not only do this, but to make it appear like it’s not effort, is enormous.

I am so tired of trying to keep the buoy of how my brain works under the water, of how, every time, I’m breaking my own heart hoping it stays there.”

Lakelore (Bastián)

Bastián has evolved endless coping mechanisms and Lore has developed keen observation skills and the ability to second-guess what someone might want from them. Both teens see themselves, to some extent, as a burden on their family and friends, and both are keenly aware that they are already at a distance from society’s expectations, or what author Nisi Shawl would call the “dominant paradigm.”

I’m brown, I’m trans, and I have a learning disability. My sheer existence is as much nuance as I get to have. Who I am uses up all the space the world is willing to give me, and even that, I have to fight to keep open. I am already a living confrontation. My story doesn’t get to be complicated.”

— Lakelore (Lore)

The two of them have a lot in common, even aside from their unique ability to see the world under the lake. One of these things is a determined resolve to never look back. Lore has buried their traumatic past and is terrified that someone in their new home town will find out about it. Bastián channels their mistakes and their messes into their papier-mâché alebrijes, which are fantastical creatures that have elements from different animals. (Bastián’s alebrijes include a mint-green fox with an emerald-green peacock’s tail and an octopus with flames for tentacles.)

One of the things I love about Anna-Marie McLemore’s writing is the way that they flood their stories with colour and descriptions of the fantastical that are dreamy, vivid, and tactile. The world under the lake is gorgeous and hallucinatory and the moments when it intrudes into the everyday world were my favourite parts of the book. In this world, Bastián’s alebrijes come alive, and both they and Lore exist there in “half water, half air, …as strange and luminous as being inside a sea-foam bubble.”

I look up, and track that rush of blue.
First I take in what it is as it crosses the sky, a spotted fish with a feathered tail that looks blade sharp. Then I take in that the sky is no longer daylight-gray, but purple, dark as the rind of an eggplant.
Ocean plants twist up toward that sky. A starfish with blue swallowtail wings rustles the stalks. The sky ripples with threads of light like sun bowing on the bottom of a pool.”

Lakelore (Lore)

There are times when the narrative tilts towards being exposition-heavy. Bastián and Lore do a lot of describing, both to each other and to the reader, of what it’s like to live with ADHD and dyslexia, respectively. This is a YA book, and so I give it some leeway for this, but there were times when I felt that the narration was a little over-explanatory. Still, for anyone who wants to learn more about what living at the intersections of race, gender, and disability looks like, this book is a lovely way to start that exploration.

A character at one point encourages Lore to look back, to claim their whole self, and she quotes the poet Adrienne Rich: “Whatever is unnamed, this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.” This, I think, is the heart of Lore and Bastián’s traumas. Only when they face them head on can they find a way forward. As they each struggle with this, it’s heartwarming to see their unhesitating acceptance of one another lead to their eventual acceptance of themselves.

In the end, this is a tale filled equally with pain and with wonder. As with all Anna-Marie McLemore books, come for the otherworldly beauty, stay for the emotional punch.

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