Pearl is an angel on earth, with wings that exist in another dimension (mostly). She doesn’t know how she ended up on this plane, but she’s trying to find out. She works for the Resistance, helping humans be kinder to each other, helping people silently and selflessly. She works as a flight attendant, soothing people’s nerves as much as serving them tea during flights, but she’s uncertain of who or what she really is and what her true purpose is. She’s missing something—a memory, a part of her being and her past…something that she has yet to identify and find.
One day on a flight that starts off like many others, a man with a briefcase sparks some recognition in Pearl. This man, Dr Sorle, however, isn’t just Dr. Sorle either—he’s got someone living inside him, someone or something that has hijacked his body for it’s own purposes. And the briefcase? It may look ordinary, but it seems to open up into another space and time entirely. Perhaps more than just one space and time, in fact. Pearl needs to get this briefcase, which, ‘rain-smeared and scuffed with its locks safely shut, […] was not a briefcase. It was a piece of [her] essence’, to understand what and who she really is. But she cannot open it, just as Dr. Sorle seems unable to let it go. There’s also a pterosaur, an almost-dead millionaire who wants to live forever, an international higher dimensional conspiracy, politics related to oil excavation (but aren’t they all?), parallel lives, hidden worlds and possibly the secrets at the centre of creation.
One of the interesting things about Pearl was that Sullivan chooses not to focus right away on the fact that she is, when human, female. We are told that she isn’t young, she’s tall, muscular, dark skinned and strong—it may take some readers a little while to realise that she is female. Of course, since she is an angel, a being outside of our realm of understanding, this makes perfect sense—she is everything and all the things and more. Her greatest defining feature is her great love for everything around her, her ability to find joy in the world, in humanity and in nature. Even her involvement with the Resistance is more than just political for her: ‘…love’s what the Resistance is really made of, internally, where it’s warm and dark.’
Occupy Me is full to bursting with intriguing ideas and concepts, philosophy and complex physics. It’s high concept and heady. It’s also got a lot of humour—the least of which is Sullivan’s little tongue in cheek reference to the women in the refrigerator trope. We first meet Pearl when she is literally in a fridge at a dump site, unaware of why or how she got there. She’s far from that helpless plot device who has no agency or power though—she’s relentless, fierce and unstoppable. Sullivan takes the whole ‘strong female protagonist’ to a literal level too, giving Pearl massive physical strength (she can lift a truck!), the ability to fly and pure, brute will to survive and make things right. She’s a likeable character, easy to relate to even though her origins are mysterious and shrouded.
There are multiple perspectives at play here and Sullivan employs first, second and third person throughout the novel, changing the voices up in each chapter. Dr. Sorle’s narrative is in second person, which makes complete sense since he himself has been hijacked, occupied by another being—his movements, his actions are alien to him, too, because it is as if they are happening to someone else. While the use of second person perspective may seem jarring to some, it’s actually a great way to differentiate between the characters and their experiences, particularly in the case of a man who is literally having someone else take the reins. Second person narratives are always risky, but Sullivan pulls hers off with aplomb.
That Sullivan’s use of language is skilled and superior will be of no surprise to her earlier readers. Occupy Me resonates with beautifully evocative passages, strange and surreal and lovely. Pearl’s experiences with what the briefcase holds stand out amongst many such parts, with powerful writing and just fantastic imagery:
‘My feet are claws. I am balancing with my wings, holding myself on the point of falling in or falling back. I feel the substance of the briefcase slither between the clacking grip of my claws. The substance of the briefcase itself is deep, and its intermolecular spaces are suspect: they look back at me like eyes. But these clever engineered depths are as nothing compared to the skirling void of that frank maw. Eater of dead men, mother of questions, it is before me and presents itself without sound, without smell, without sight. Without touch. My claws hold the edges of it’s containment, a mystery fiend that shows me my own blindness without mockery and without pity. I try to breathe. I need something to anchor me to the visceral but claws and breath and blood are not enough.’
Occupy Me is a tough one to encapsulate, but it’s clever and complex and forces you to think outside of your comfort zone. It’s a thriller, complete with international hijinks, corporate corruption and an evil megalomaniac. What it isn’t is a standard paranormal fantasy featuring angels—it’s much more compelling in its originality. That it’s lush and often just lovely makes it easier to engage with—it’s actually a treat to read out loud, because Sullivan’s voice is so strong and rhythmic.
Occupy Me is available now in the UK from Gollancz.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.