Sunday 14 October 2012

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Habibi is a beautiful, beautiful work of art. It is absolutely stunning. But it is also disconcerting.

Set in a fictitious Arab sultanate, this is the story of a young girl/woman and the toddler/boy/teenager/man she adopts. Our heroine is sold into marriage, then abducted by slavers, put in a slave market, where she adopts a black toddler. She escapes with the child, and forms a small family unit in the desert, never quite sure whether she acts as a mother or a sister to the growing boy. She tells the growing boy stories from the Qu'ran and other myths / fairy tales. But their life in the desert is not meant to last forever...

The graphic novel is perhaps the most beautifully illustrated thing I've ever read / beheld. It is clearly deeply in love with its aesthetic, and its aesthetic is mesmerisingly beautiful. In terms of the story, I was never bored reading this book.

But there are some things that are troubling. This book shows the Middle East through a Western prism. We get Middle Eastern aesthetic, beautiful Arabic script, myths from Arabian Nights and the Qu'ran, but we also get sultans, harems, slavery, eunuchs, beheadings, intermixed with mobile phones, dams, electricity and the modern world. The first two thirds of the book could be set in the 1800s and could have been written by a Victorian pornographer. The last third, with its hints of Dubai about it, feels like a somewhat uncomfortable add-on.

As I just mentioned the word "pornographer", it's perhaps worth talking about that, too. Our heroine spends an awful lot of time being naked, and there is a lot of sex in this book (indeed, sexuality is one of the major themes). The book is in love with the sensual aesthetic of harems and silken veils, but not really the modern focus on modesty that Islam tries to stand for. This Middle East is not the Middle East of our 2012; it is the Middle East that James Bond or Lara Croft or Indiana Jones might travel through: an aesthetic, a sensual oasis of lust. It is a comic book, pulp fiction Middle East.

So perhaps it is forgiveable that almost all characters are disgusting scoundrels (if male), or envious and bitchy (if female) or both (if eunuchs). Perhaps it is forgiveable that our heroine oozes sex appeal in every single picture, even the ones where she is a child (with a woman's curves, a woman's legs, posture, lips and hair) or about to be raped. Except, the subtext of the book seems quite judgemental: all (Arab) men are potential rapists, all the oppressed are collaborators with their own oppression, there is no kindness without a demand for something in return. Perhaps I should some it up like this: rape is not an erotic act. Drawing rape so it looks sexy is wrong. Therefore, this book is arguably amoral.

This is a story about abuse, but by choosing to draw all the abuse in the sexiest possible way, it puts the reader in the abuser's shoes, which is uncomfortable. It's a bit as if someone had taken a Todd Solondz movie script, added lots of Neil Gaiman-esque love of mythology, hired Oscar-winning arts directors to create the aesthetic, but given the result to Michael Bay to direct and cast. It's art, it's entertainment, it's rich, it's beautiful, and it's also crass, oversexed, and misogynistic.

Rating: 3.5/5. (Aesthetically, 5/5, but the seedier aspects detract a lot)

Friday 12 October 2012

Among Others by Jo Walton

I bought Among Others without knowing much about it. I knew it was set in Wales, that it had an uninviting cover, that it had won awards and that it is speculative fiction (it's a magical realist novel about a science fiction enthusiast). So, somewhat put off by the cover, I was surprised at how much I turned out to enjoy this book.

Starting out with a beautifully atmospheric prologue, the novel then skips ahead by some time, and takes the format of a diary. In our prologue, two girls try to do some magic to fight against a polluting factory in Abercwmboi, Wales. The diary, years later, is that of one of the girls, now in changed circumstances.

It is difficult to go into detail: I enjoyed reading through the book without knowing anything about the story, and I don't want to reduce anyone's enjoyment. So, instead of focusing on events and plot, I'll describe the style of the book.

It is a mellow book: don't expect cliffhangers or huge drama. You're reading the (very realistic) diary of a teenage Welsh girl going to an English boarding school. Adjust your expectations to that.

It is a book about growing up, and nervous first encounters with sexuality. But the writing is that of a very academical girl, with a mind that does not tend to over-romanticise. It is never erotic nor pornographic, but neither is it shy.

It is a story featuring fairies and magic, but not in any way I've ever encountered them before. This book is set in our world, not any other, and you may soon find yourself wondering whether it is really a book about believing in fairies and magic, rather than a book about actual fairies and magic. Things are so subtly interwoven and so grounded that I was not sure of my narrator, which made the novel very interesting.

It is a book about someone who loves books, and specifically science fiction and fantasy (and more specifically: post-1960s new wave science fiction above all else). Hundreds of books and authors get name-checked, often with just a single thought about them. It is a book for readers. You know how some novels set in London take you through the city, street by street, turning familiar geography into excitement for Londoners (and frequent visitors of the city)? You know how encountering a street or park that you know in real life in a story can liven it up? Well, Among Others is set in the geography of a voracious science fiction reader's mind, and for other readers, this name-checking makes it a very lively read: almost like a conversation with a fellow reader. It may be a little alienating for those who never or rarely read any sf/f at all.

At the start, I was a bit alienated - the narrative voice sounded slightly American to me, as the only indication of accent / localised speech is the way "grandpa" is written as "grampar", which does not sound Welsh to my (German-born) ears. However, that alienation quickly faded, and I was left reading a wonderfully pleasant novel, which did not hurry but still engaged me because our narrator is just the sort of person I would enjoy spending time around: on the fringes, not popular, but geeky, smart, well-read, cultured, able to hold down a conversation, in every possible way not shallow and not pretentious.

I can't really think of any comparable novel. I thought this was a truly wonderful read.

The novel is not entirely flawless - the very final bits are a little bit weak, but forgivably so.

Rating: 5/5