Title: Lizard Radio
Author: Pat Schmatz
Trigger Warnings: Gender-based violence, loss of a parent, death
Fifteen-year-old Kivali has never fit in. As a girl in boys’ clothes, she is accepted by neither tribe, bullied by both. What are you? they ask. Abandoned as a baby wrapped in a T-shirt with an image of a lizard on the front, Kivali found a home with nonconformist artist Sheila. Is it true what Sheila says, that Kivali was left by a mysterious race of saurians and that she’ll one day save the world? Kivali doesn’t think so. But if it is true, why has Sheila sent her off to CropCamp, with its schedules and regs and what feels like indoctrination into a gov-controlled society Kivali isn’t sure has good intentions?
But life at CropCamp isn’t all bad. Kivali loves being outdoors and working in the fields. And for the first time, she has real friends: sweet, innocent Rasta; loyal Emmett; fierce, quiet Nona. And then there’s Sully. The feelings that explode inside Kivali whenever Sully is near—whenever they touch—are unlike anything she’s experienced, exhilarating and terrifying. But does Sully feel the same way?
Between mysterious disappearances, tough questions from camp director Ms. Mischetti, and weekly doses of kickshaw—the strange, druglike morsel that Kivali fears but has come to crave—things get more and more complicated. But Kivali has an escape: her unique ability to channel and explore the power of her animal self. She has Lizard Radio.
Will it be enough to save her?
I was going to wait to review this book until I had it sorted out in my head, but I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t think I’m ever going to sort it out. So heads up for a somewhat confused review written by a somewhat confused reviewer.
After I finished reading this, I tried to explain it to my fiance, which involved me giving a tangent-filled, disorderly, and increasingly agitated account of the events of Lizard Radio that ended with him completely baffled and me not even sure what I was trying to say. This book is hard to describe and hard to even wrap my head around.
Let’s start with Kivali. She’s right in the gray area between bender (transgender) and not, but chose not to transition. (In this world, transgender people are fine as long as they choose to transition before age 10.) I think bigender would be the best way to describe her, but I’m not really sure since she never gives herself a gender label. But anyway. She grew up with her guardian, Sheila, telling her that she was left behind by the saurians, a race of lizard-like aliens (I think?), and she kinda believes it. At least, she identifies strongly with lizards, to the point where she believes she has a lizard skin protecting her and occasionally has trance-like states where she feels like she actually is a large lizard. She also has lizard radio, which is like a psychic/trance thing where she gets visions of lizards and they talk to her … okay, it’s really hard to explain in words. My fiance suggested she could be schizophrenic – on one hand, it would fit, but on the other, so much weird stuff happens that some sort of supernatural/alien explanation almost feels like it makes more sense.
I thought Sully was going to get more page time than she did. She got quite a bit in the beginning as Kivali was falling for her, but in the middle and end not so much. For most of it, the romance angle was more Kivali dealing with her feelings than actually interacting with Sully. But she also had a close friend in Rasta and grows a friendship with Emmett and Nona, so it’s not like she was alone.
Then there’s the world. It’s some variety of dystopian world where the government has a lot of power and the value of community and working together are heavily emphasized – to the point where children between 15 and 17 are sent off to camps (like the CropCamp Kivali gets sent to) to learn how to get rid of their own individuality to become a community while learning a trade that will benefit society. But you don’t actually get a lot of the world. The story starts when Kivali gets to CropCamp and ends when she leaves, so all you really get is a microcosm of the world, ruled over by Ms. Mischetti, governed by gongs that announce when you can do things, and subject to strict regulations.
This book leaves you with so many questions. Is Kivali human or actually a saurian? What is lizard radio? How does this world even work? Is there a supernatural/alien explanation or is Kivali just absolutely insane? What is actually going on here? The plot is slow to start, and in the beginning the questions are what keep you hooked – how does this work? What does that word mean? But there aren’t answers. There aren’t ever answers. The questions are just left hovering in the air like the tension between two people who love each other but know it’s better for both of them if they just walk away.
This book is weird. It’s strange and unsettling and doesn’t make any sense – but at the same time it’s fascinating and beautiful and makes perfect sense. It’s dystopian without any of the grit. It’s paranormal without any actual paranormal events. It’s nonsense, but it’s fascinating, engrossing, wonderful nonsense. It’s a dystopian novel and a fever dream and Alice in Wonderland if Alice was part lizard and Wonderland was an agricultural camp.
I don’t have the proper words for what this book is. It’s one of those books where if someone asked if you liked it, you’d answer with “Well, it was interesting.” But it’s also one you can’t stop thinking about. As I told my fiance after finishing it, “Sometimes you finish a book and you just have to lay on the floor about it.” And I don’t know what more to say about Lizard Radio than that.