Friday, December 23, 2022

A Sister by Bastien Vives

Antoine is about thirteen, the older of the two sons in his family. He's a bit on the small and quiet side, preferring to draw with his brother Titi than to do more rambunctious things. As this bande dessinee begins, he's in the backseat of the family car, heading to a beach house for the usual summer vacation. We get the sense this is a comforting routine, the latest of many years that are all much the same. Antoine isn't outgrowing it yet, but maybe he year, or the year after.

His parents get a call on the way down: a family friend, Sylvie, has had a miscarriage. Antoine more-or-less understands, hearing parts of a story in a moving car while other things are happening. And two mornings later, when the family is still settling into their summer house, there's a teenage girl sleeping in the other bed in the room Antoine and Titi share. This is Hélène, Sylvie's only child: she and her mother are going to be spending the next week or so with Antoine's family.

Hélène is three years older than Antoine, and they've barely ever met before. And now she's supposed to spend the next week with these two younger boys, doing...what? That's the story here: the what.

Bastien Vivès named this book A Sister, but that's a puckish title, based on a comment in that first scene. Antoine's mother mentions that she too had a miscarriage, about three years before Antoine was born, and so he could have had an older sister. That sister would have been about Hélène's age, but a teenage boy's relationship with a slightly older attractive girl who he sees mostly in beachwear and in their bedroom - and who he has no previous connection to - is vastly different than brother/sister.

The rest of the book tells the story of Hélène's visit - all from Antoine's point of view, mostly focusing on the two of them. Titi is usually lurking about, though - no one can ever get rid of annoying younger brothers. Antoine and Hélène start out not knowing anything about each other, and don't really talk deeply, as teenagers often don't. But they have a connection, pretty quickly, forged by the usual teenage risk-taking (cigarettes, bottles of wine semi-stolen from a beach event, hanging out with the local kids, some furtive sexual exploration mostly driven by Hélène). And they seem roughly compatible, at least for this summer, these few days - they mesh well together comfortably and tend to make good decisions together, at least with regard to the wild local kids.

And it ends when Sylvie and Hélène leave, long before the end of summer. We know Antoine and his family are spending two months in this beach house; we're pretty sure less than one of those months have passed. The summer is nowhere near over. But this isn't the story of a summer, it's the story of a relationship - what happened between Antoine and Hélène.

We don't know if Antoine ever sees Hélène again. We think this is roughly autobiographical, based on what we know of Vivès, but we have no idea if there is a "real" Hélène.

We also don't really know what Hélène thinks of all of this: we see her through Antoine's eyes, and he may be thoughtful and observant, as befits a budding artist, but he's also thirteen and besotted with her. A book from her point of view could be quite different from this one.

Vivès has a soft grey-wash art style here, much like his The Blouse, and I find his artistic eye is similar as well: there's something slightly chilly about it, as if the camera were another character, choosing things to show for its own purposes. Antoine is central here, but not quite the viewpoint: we mostly understand what he's thinking, without being told explicitly, but he's still thirteen: he doesn't entirely know what he's doing, or wanting, or thinking.

Like The Blouse, this is a book with interesting depths, one that tells its story in a naturalistic, mostly cinematic way. I see this book has already been made into a movie, along with a couple of other Vivès works: he strikes me as a creator very well-suited for adaptation into film.

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