Review of the Day: Three Shadows
When I showed my husband my latest First Second graphic novel, Three Shadows, he took a gander at where the book had originally been published. “France? Doesn’t First Second know that there are hardworking American graphic novelists being put out of their jobs because of guys like this?” He was joking of course, but after a while a person might begin to agree. Where DOES First Second come up with these people? If they’re not romancing us with handsome mummies as in The Professor’s Daughter then these overseas masters of the pen are shooting dogs into space like in Laika. Cyril Pedrosa is French, but looking at his style alone you wouldn’t be inclined to give his pen a strict nationality. This is maybe one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Can you “read” an image? “Reading” Pedrosa can be dangerous. It means fully immersing yourself in a story that, at its heart, is about the death of a child and how parents fight and cope with the tragedy. You have to be able to trust that the artist will get you in and out of this kind of subject matter with skill. Fortunately, in this particular case there is little need for worry.
When little Joachim sees “shadows” staring at him from his window at night, it doesn’t initially seem to be of any concern. Sure, there are three mysterious horsemen on the hill by his home, but is that a crime? Until now Joachim, his mother, and his father have all lived an idyllic life consisting of planting, skinny-dipping, and long nights in front of the fire. Yet the presence of the shadows is undoubtedly sinister and when the boy’s mother discovers their real purpose, her husband decides to take matters into his own hands. They want his son? Fine. They’ll just have to follow where he goes, over the river and to a land where they’ll be safe. Soon, though, it becomes clear that the journey to safety may be more dangerous than anyone could have expected. And when at last it’s time to let go, it is Joachim who enables his father to face the truth and who helps him understand at last.
The bookflap of this novel says this about the story’s creation. "Three Shadows was born out of the agony of watching his close friends’ child die very young.” Maybe a parent who had lost a child firsthand would have been too close to the material. Maybe it took a friend like Mr. Pedrosa to put a magical realism spin on the action and make something that is more “true” than a straight memoir might be. A book like this, working with the hope that it will convey at least a smidgen of what a person feels when their child is taken away, has to rely on the skill of the author’s storytelling. So it is that we encounter several lives. There are moral uncertainties and terrible choices, and it is the mix of these stories that make this book a richer piece of fiction. The story makes a rather odd turn when Joachim at last confronts the three shadows and we take a peculiar interlude into the decadent upper echelons of rich society. Otherwise the script is tight and the scenes a valuable part of the whole.
You might wonder what other artistic endeavors Mr. Pedrosa has dipped his toe into. Well I’m getting all my information about him from the bookflap of this title, so take that for what it’s worth. Apparently Pedrosa, “began his career in animation, working on, among others, the Disney films Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules.” I wouldn’t have had a clue about this without reading this info. Thinking of those two films you get a very clear image in your mind of that particular Disney style. And certainly Pedrosa’s art is, above all, wholly cinematic. There are close-ups, landscape shots, views from above, and magnificent dream sequences. There are panels that stretch across the page in long strips, panels that are tiny boxes and others that work without lines or borders.
More than this, however, is the man’s use of line. He is to long thin curvy lines what Peter Sis is to dots and speckles. Whole scenes are carved out of twisted lines that sweep about the characters. And yet it is the sheer variety of artistic styles that will impress you the most. When Joachim’s father takes him away to be “safe” the sequence of the boy leaving his mother is done in sharp contrasting shadows, the mom almost barely more than a shadow by the end. Or there’s the golem sequence that looks more scratchboard than ink. And yet the image in this book of Joachim pulling a chair across the floor, in spite of all the technical beauty of Pedrosa’s ink, is my favorite image if only because it feels so real and true. That then is the true reason I respect the man’s work.
All this, and not a single sacrifice made on the part of character. Motivations are never purer than when they are invested in keeping your children healthy and happy. There’s not a person in this book that doesn’t appear to know his or her own mind. What they do, they do out of self-interest, or on behalf of someone who is impotent. Except the three shadows, of course. They too know their own minds, but their actions are on behalf of something we cannot hope to understand while we live.
You may wonder if this is an appropriate inclusion in your children’s collection, to which I would have to reply, “Ah, the French”. About page four you get a look at innocent full family nudity that is highlighting the sweetness of their life together and will make many a parent shake in their shoes. Boobs! And later in the book when the family is sleeping, more boobs! And hanging dangling bits! So, taking into account the maturity of the subject matter, the allusions to what happens to African female slaves, and the sheer amount of breasts in the book, best to be putting this in the teen and adult sections of your library, I should think.
The book begins with the poem “Not Pleasant But True” by Deborah Garrison about a parent’s wish to die in their child’s stead. It’s a small poem. No more than ten lines in length, but the tone is there. And yet, this is not a story that dwells in misery and loss without acknowledging life in all its mysteries. Three Shadows is a sometimes subtle, sometimes chaotic, always beautiful book that dares to tackle every parent’s deepest fear. Heartbreaking and brilliant by turns, this is required reading.
On shelves April 1st.
- Take a look at a long comic section from the book on the Vulture Blog.
- Note that this book was elected as a fan favorite at Angouleme. Angouleme, by the way, is the biggest comic festival in the whole wide WORLD.
- And if you happen to be a French speaker, here are some interviews with Mr. Pedrosa himself.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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