A Timeless Sense of Place
I stumbled upon this book in a Montreal bookstore a few years ago. Then unfamiliar with her work, I felt that I should buy it solely on the premise that it was about a man wandering a strange, new place—the exact situation I was in at the time. The moods of Gabriella Giandelli’s stories are very much built on the places they inhabit. It seems important to her that these stories—in order to last, to remain timeless—occur in places removed from any specific time period. By making them so, she is able to add an additional layer to what is already a haunting atmosphere; in books like Sous Les Feuilles (Seuil) and Interiorae (Fantagraphics Books), the reader is often left feeling disoriented. Part of the allure of these places and stories is discovering what they are all about.
Sous Les Feuilles seems to exist not in a place where time has stopped, but a place where it is irrelevant. The characters seem lost, but at home. The architecture, decor, and clothing seem vaguely twentieth century, but there is nothing to identify them as such. These elements are evocative of a parallel universe; the village is sparsely populated, inducing a feeling of purgatory.
The infrastructure is cold, yet cared for. This is not a place abandoned and without love. The village is densely structured, but where are all the people? The world is insulated and self-contained; in many of the scenes within the village, the sky is ommited, hinting at the fact that there might not be a world beyond this. Even those parts of the story that take place in the surrounding forest are so deeply enshrouded by foliage that the same remains true there.
It takes a special skill to construct a world so closely resembling our own, yet wholly different. Gabriella Giandelli’s worlds are just familiar enough for the reader to get comfortable, but eerie enough that you wonder if you were ever there at all.
This Could Be Your Family
Already familiar with Three Shadows (First Second), I bought this book for myself as a 32nd birthday gift. Portugal (Aire Libré/Dupuis) is an ambitious, introspective narrative with an incredibly expressive and lush palette; but beyond its technical virtuosity and dynamic color play, what this book does best is master human relationships. Pedrosa’s style—linework with a subtle shakiness—brings his characters to life through their flaws and vulnerability. This is an unforgettable story about family: a story about generations and their personalities, a story about the promises we try to keep to ourselves and to each other.
The story follows cartoonist Simon Muchat as he tries to shake stagnation and a wavering relationship by accepting an invitation to spend time with family in Portugal, where he has not been since he was a boy. The characters are complicated and authentic, and the story, sentimental without pandering. Their expressions and dialogue are so relatable that It’s easy to make these people your own family—because you already recognize them; it’s easy to get lost in their arguments, (the most beautiful arguments I’ve ever seen) and feel awkward in their tension. The magnetic dynamic is palpable; you can feel every tug of emotion. Every lull is made heavy with drama, and lingers long after the page has been turned.
For Simon, the truth reveals itself in seemingly banal and familiar places; long, awkward car rides with a self-absorbed, disappointed father, where the silence speaks the loudest.
But Portugal is far from dour. There are drunken, late-night conversations full of sweetness, cigarettes, and interruptions. There are breakdowns (automotive and otherwise), and cramped car rides that are hilarious and stressful, where brothers and sisters express their love through criticism, while they expose secrets and smoke pot. The sibling chemistry is explosive, surly, and realistic.
With Portugal, Pedrosa is fully in control, but he allows his characters incredible freedom. They are confident and casual as they move about their lives, and the time you spend with them is intimate, dramatic, and joyful.