Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 312 (12/12) -- The Zabime Sisters by Aristophane

Quiet, closely observed stories from odd corners of the world have never been the sort of thing to set the graphic novel world on fire. (Or any other literary world, really -- they're the kind of thing universally referred to as "small.") So it's slightly odd to see French graphic novelist Aristophane's work introduced to English-language readers through a quiet story about three sisters on the first day of summer vacation, high in the mountains of the Carribean island nation of Guadeloupe.

(On the other hand, Aristophane's career raises other questions for the American reader, primarily among them why this 1996 book was his last published work, since he lived until 2004. There may be good answers, or bad answers, or no answers for those questions.)

But we have to take The Zabime Sisters as it is: Aristophane wrote and drew it over a decade ago, but Matt Madden has translated and presented it to us now, so now is when we can see it. Those three sisters -- M'Rose, Ella, and Celina -- have different ways that they want to spend that first day of vacation, but they and their friends and schoolmates end up, as children and other social animals do, grouping together to do what everyone else is doing. And those events are almost startlingly timeless -- a fight between two boys, a stolen bottle of rum to drink, picking growing fruit for a snack, and so much walking and talking -- that they wouldn't be out of place in Tom Sawyer, or in a story two or three centuries older.

It wouldn't make much sense to describe the plot of Zabime Sisters in any detail: the three girls go out to indulge their summer freedom, meet many other kids they know, and have a summer day. There are no huge moments here, but the small ones are thoughtfully chosen and carefully organized -- this is not a typical day, but an exemplary one. Along the way, Aristophane's chiaroscuro-esque blacks mimic the bring sunlight and dark jungle shadows of tropical Guadeloupe, taking these universal moments and making them particular. His characters don't strike as strongly as his images do -- they're believable and identifiable without leaping off the page urgently; we feel that we have known people like M'Rose without strongly understanding M'Rose herself. Zabime Sisters, in the end, is what it looked like in the beginning: a well-made but quiet story of childhood, in an evocative style, by a creator we probably won't ever get to know better. It's interesting and worth reading, but not compelling.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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