Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: A Game For Swallows by Zeina Abirached (translated by Edward Gauvin)

Cover art for A Game of Swallows, featuring a black and white drawing of a large, multi-gender group of adults standing behind two children
In civil war Beirut, it’s safer to leave your children home alone than to take them with you on a mad dash through the war torn city. So when three-year-old Zeina Abirached’s parents visit a relative who lives a few streets away, they leave Zeina and her little brother all by themselves in the tiny foyer that has become the only safe space in the family’s apartment.

The foyer, protected by thick supporting walls, is also the safest place in the entire apartment complex, so the children don't remain alone very long. The neighbors soon join them there to tell stories and share food as they wait out the night.

There’s no point in beating around the bush: A GAME FOR SWALLOWS [Amazon | Kobo | The Book Depository] is the best book I’ve read so far in 2014. It’s also the most affecting memoir I’ve ever read, and one of my top comics of all time.

I want you to read it, please. Here's why.

Abirached is a master cartoonist. She’s keenly aware of the parallels between the panels of her comic and the barriers erected throughout war-torn Beirut, and she uses them to great effect. Each dividing line mimics either the shipping containers and barrels that break up the streets or the segmented apartment that becomes the children’s entire world. It’s impossible to ignore the sense of restricted space and calculated delineation here. The layout becomes much a character as any of the people who pass their time in the foyer.

The stark black and white colour scheme enhances the sense of containment, effectively placing the reader in darkness as inky as the night Abirached recalls.

The nighttime gathering itself serves as a framing story through which we examine the lives of each person who inhabits the apartment building. Abirached immerses us in their world. Her evocative use of line communicates each character’s emotions so beautifully that it’s possible to follow the action without so much as glancing at the dialogue tags. (Though why you’d want to cheat yourself out of the full experience, I have no idea.) The joy the children take from their neighbors’ presence stands in sharp contrast to the tension the adults feel as they congregate to entertain the children and keep one another company. No matter the face they put on for the little ones, it’s apparent that each of these people has lost a lot to the war and is keenly aware of how much more they could lose before the night is through.

I became so involved in their backstories, and so desperate to see them come through this violent night safely, that I forgot I was reading a book. I might as well have been in the room with them, listening to their pre-war stories and sharing their fear as the bombs dropped all around them.

That almost never happens to me, y'all.

If you have even the slightest interest in either comics or memoir, you must read this as soon as possible. It’s fabulous and heartfelt.

6 comments:

  1. I DO have the slightest interest in BOTH comics and memoirs! I added this to my list after Lu of Regular Rumination (I think?) read it for Graphic Novels February. It sounds amazing -- now if I can just get my library to order me a copy. :)

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    1. I hope they agree to get it! I have a feeling you'll love it.

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  2. I read this one last year, and still smile every time I hear someone mention it. I thought it was just pure perfection.

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    1. Indeed it was. I wish more of Abirached's books were available in English.

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  3. I loved loved loved everything about this. It was absolutely perfect.

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    1. Agreed. I still can't stop thinking about it, and it's been weeks.

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