Lizard Radio, by Pat Schmatz, is a book I wouldn’t have picked up of my own accord. But one of the great things about social networks is that other authors recommend books and make them sound so intriguing that you seek them out. And I’m so glad I did!
Lizard Radio is an ‘alternate contemporary’ if you like. The world isn’t ours but could be, either now or at some point in the future (think Handmaid’s Tale). Children are monitored from birth to assess whether they ‘fit’ their biological gender. At the age of ten, they are formally assessed, and if it is clear they identify more closely with another gender, they begin transition immediately: the rationale being that the earlier this process is completed, the happier the individual is likely to be as an adult. At around sixteen, they are sent to camps (presumably those which correspond most closely to their personal talents and interests), and then one supposes that after passing training, they go out to work in their selected area.
Our protagonist is Kivali, nicknamed Lizard by the other members of CropCamp. Lizard has an affinity with a small model of a komodo dragon, which she keeps with her, and she has also learned a unique style of meditation, one that she calls tuning into Lizard Radio. At times, she almost believes she’s turning into a lizard. This is a belief strengthened by the fact that her guardian Sheila (who adopted her as a baby) once told her that she was brought to Earth by lizards, rather than being born human. Lizard isn’t sure what she is, because at the age of ten, she was assessed as ‘borderline’ in the gender test, and chose not to transition. But is she female or male? Human or lizard?
In a world of unfamiliar (but guessable) jargon – Cleezies, the Mealio, frods – the reader isn’t spoonfed. This requires intelligent reading: much of the world outside the camp isn’t described at all, which means that the story is tightly focused on Lizard and her coming-of-age. She discovers what friendship is, and falls horribly, painfully in love with a girl who doesn’t seem to return it in the same way. More intriguingly than any other character, though, is the camp manager, Ms Mischetti (nicknamed Machete). Why is she so lenient when it comes to disciplining Lizard? Why does Lizard feel she can trust her? Is that trust real, or an illusion?
This is a gripping, unusual tale, and although I felt at times that there wasn’t enough overall world-building for me to feel that I completely ‘got it’, Lizard Radio is a fascinating read with a protagonist who is non-binary, and as such I am really pleased I read it. Thanks for the recommendation!
Oh, and by the way, the hardback cover is simply STUNNING, with foiled greens in lots of shades. A beautiful addition to a bookshelf.