Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Say it like you've got honey in your mouth."
"Hello, my name is Suzanne..."
Well, this is a sell-itself cover if ever I saw one.
There's an exceptionally strong, tactile physicality to the bare male back being wrapped round with a brassiere by a woman who looks lovingly but apprehensively up into his eyes as she seeks to close its clasp. Her wrists, hands and fingers are graceful, and her touch is tender, while his knuckles on hips aren't those of a closed fist but open. It's as subtle and soft as the molding, the shading. Their skin glows as if under moonlight.
Equally beautiful body forms populate this period graphic novel throughout, along with exquisitely expressive, gesticulatory character acting reminiscent of Will Eisner. And Suzanne will have to do an awful lot of acting for fear of being found out. But after an initial reticence and reluctance to feminise herself in order to fit in, she finds that she actually relishes it and so much more.
At which point, the couple's lives grow increasingly complicated...
Perhaps I should have used "historical" rather than "period" for DESERTER'S MASQUERADE is firmly rooted in a real story which begins one evening in pre-WWI Paris.
Louise is being prepped for the night out by her mother, advising her on etiquette and deportment as she deems befits a young lady; Paul is being bigged-up by his mum who admires the way his jacket shows off his broad shoulders. Unfortunately she's making leek soup as he dresses for the occasion, and it's ever so possible he'll pong. His mates, on the other hand, gently tease him on account of his ardour for Louise but he's determined that his enigmatic act will win the day. Louise, meanwhile, is being tutored by her friends on the affectations which she'll need to pull off in order to attract.
"You need to fuss and fret a little bit."
"She's right. Play with your hair, stroke your knee, straighten your skirt... That way you appeal to his hunter's instincts. You are his prey... The coup de grace: you throw back your head and laugh to show him your neck..."
It's like being coached for a role in the crowd scene of a play. It works.
"Come on, let's dance."
"Well... okay but I should warn you now... I don't know the steps like the other girls do."
That matters not one jot. For many more nights over so many years, they're going to make up their own dance instead.
Tonight it is beautiful to behold, Cruchaudet choreographing their hand-in-hand, give-and-take movements with a sweeping grace, accentuating their hips as they throw themselves up and Paul swirls Louise about. There is energy and freedom in their free-floating forms. Trickling down their hot necks there are rivulets of sweat which are both moist and pleasantly pungent, a sensory reaction which Cruchaudet has already set up for her readership with the leek soup, just as she has all the acting.
Except for the emphatically cramped and claustrophobic WWI trench scenes on the French frontline, all the panels here are borderless in black, white and grey washes, the cameo effect of the cinematic haze reminiscent of early film-making from around the same period. The bright scarlet dresses, skirts, and scarf (and a later, orange, chiffon chemise) could be a more modern tinting of those original black and white frames, adding extra sensuality to what is an exceptionally sensual experience.
The heady dance is immediately followed by a romantic, more serene scene in a boat on the lake in the Bois de Boulogne, which in turn leads swiftly down the altar, thence to the train station, Louise still adorned in her wedding dress. Alas, Paul is in army uniform for war is about to be declared, the virile young soldiers parading proudly in an orderly fashion down open avenues, full of optimism for the future.
One turn of the page later and you are in Hell.
What happens in the trenches won't stay in the trenches: it will haunt Paul forever, and Cruchaudet proves as adept at ugly as she is at elegance. You will comprehend completely why Paul chose to desert - or saw little choice but to desert - but will still wince at the lengths he goes to in order to do so.
I'll flash forward instead to Paul having to hide away in a hotel while Louise goes to work, in order to bring in an inadequate wage for the pair of them. Louise is at equal risk should Paul ever be discovered for she made all the arrangements, but Paul is far from grateful, slouching around in his vest, hairy chest on show, and begins drinking heavily.
It is the need for more drink which finally propels him outside at night in one of Louise's red dresses, and oh, that look of naughty-boy joy as he strides down the lamp-lit street!
If he wants to saunter out during the day, however, they're both going to have to be far more thorough and grow more inventive with the latest epilatory gadgets. And that's how Paul becomes Suzanne.
I mentioned Will Eisner earlier, but the lines, noses and high Parisian fashion, as Paul learns his new role and then even a trade, also put me very much in mind of what I call early-mid Disney circa 'One Hundred And One Dalmatians'.
We've still barely begun, but I can take you no further; instead I pull you back. For the book doesn't begin with the dance, it begins with three pages of a courtroom trial which will be reprised later but already inform everything as you read it. For you know from the start that something went awry, so you're kept in a constant state of suspense, worrying what went wrong, when it went wrong and why.
You are given no clue at all as to the nature of the charges, and that is vital.
The very first page depicts a quite elderly man of unremarkable appearance swapping his civilian clothes for long black robes and the white scarf of office, assuming the identity of a judge.
"Clothes make the man," as they say.
That's how clever this is.
AGE ALERT for school librarians etc. It's rare that we issues any age alert in reviews - although we are always responsible on the shop floor - but there's far more going on between the covers and indeed down the Bois de Boulogne than I had anticipated, although the Bois de Boulogne is sign-posted early on (right there in wrought iron!), and that neck of the woods does have a certain history of exotic, libidinous, nocturnal activity. "Delicately put, Stephen!" Thank you.