One brief caveat: you should not be able to name something BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS, unless that something is an Avenged Sevenfold song or a student-run high-school poetry magazine. I’m going to extend the benefit of the doubt and assume that it sounds better in its original French, more like a gorgeous and powerful graphic novel than the LiveJournal page of a 17-year-old aspiring cutter. Because this book, newly translated by Drawn & Quarterly, is the best thing I’ve read in 2014.
It starts with a tea party and ends with a holocaust. Our protagonist Aurora is shyly flirting with the handsome, dandyish Prince Hector over hot cocoa and cakes, when red globs begin to drop from the ceiling into their food. Confused, the two crawl into a wet, dark tunnel, where they see other cartoon people confusedly clamoring through the shadows. They climb up into some kind of cavity, out from their cover into the pouring rain, part of a refugee throng. Then the view opens up to give us context, and our stomachs drop.
By the next morning the little people have set up camp around the girl’s body, cleverly re-purposing her belongings as survival supplies. A notebook becomes a tent; a pencil case becomes a watertight sleeping bag. Aurora, with all the pluck and self-sacrificing gumption (as well as the big dew-drop eyes and polka-dot dress) of a Disney heroine, takes it upon herself to lead the effort, setting up a kind of triage & rationing station inside the little girl’s purse. Over a few days, their society takes shape according to its needs and its personalities. Aurora makes friends with the field mice, who help her find berries.
With astonishing elegance and economy of storytelling, Vehlmann & Kerascoet sweep us through the crisis, introducing their cast of instantly recognizable, idiosyncratic-yet-archetypical characters: Plim, the over-enthusiastic boy sidekick; Jane, the proud, self-sufficient loner with a pair of cuticle scissors strapped to her back like a samurai sword; Zelie, the preening, doll-like narcissist; the bickering ballerina triplets; Timothy, the shy, nurturing wallflower — to name merely a few. In a book that takes barely an hour to read, we are gifted with over a dozen characters who stand in sharp relief, imprinting themselves on our imaginations, such that when the frost takes hold and the plot threads tighten, we find that they have wound themselves, quietly and intricately, around our heart and throat.
The stage is set. We will spend three seasons here (summer, fall, winter — this is not a book about renewal), watching their social order shift as they struggle for survival in the shadow of a young girl’s decaying body. At first the threats are external: a cat, shadow-dark against the purple night, picking children off as they sleep; one of the triplets pecked to death by a bird. There is the expected squabbling over rations and rules, and while it might be said that we’re descending into Lord of the Flies by way of The Borrowers, the place we’re heading is actually much stranger than that.
This is wilderness at its most gorgeous and frightening. The lush simplicity of these pencil & watercolor illustrations (credited to Kerascoet, which is a pen name for the Parisian artists Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset) are sumptuously appealing, with their rich colors and delicate play of light and shadow, but they are unflinching in the speed and casualness with which they shade into terror and violence. There is a smiley-face painted over everything, from a girl who’s poisoned by a plant and watches her body revoltingly balloon and malform, to the children playing ticklishly in the maggot fields. There is something otherworldly and profoundly unsettling about the giggling carelessness with which they greet the ravages of nature and society, and the storytelling and gorgeous artwork combine to keep you constantly off-balance in this perfectly realized, rapturously decaying universe.
To say too much more would be to spoil this remarkable story (if I haven’t already), which subverts your expectations and implicates you in its horrors by your mere attention, such that by the time you reach its monstrous, shocking end you feel you should close the book with care and slowly back away.
It’s the natural world writ tiny, with cartoon faces and pipsqueak personalities masking a soulless, indifferent universe. This is a very French book: an indictment of mankind itself, the cute masks that we wear, the sentimentality, the tea parties and small kindnesses that hide our sharp teeth, our callous hearts & casual cruelties. And whether or not you share this miserablist view of the human nature, you will queasily recognize something in these characters, in the shrugging ease with which they slide from sweetness to savagery. This is a book that will linger, whether you want it to or not. It will stick to your teeth. It will make you look for the tiny cartoon monsters inside yourself.
- Josh O’Neill