Page 45 Review by Stephen
"From the Divine Pen fell the first drop of ink. And from a drop, a river."
"Like a river has a spring, every story has a source."
One of the most beautiful books that I have ever held in my life.
From its rich, russet cover embossed with gold and a smooth, raised cameo which one can't help but stroke, to over 650 black and white pages threaded with Persian mythology, tales from the Qur'an and flooded throughout with patterns steeped in religious symbolism and curling, swirling, Arabic calligraphy, it is a work of wonder.
It's also bursting with love and humanity - provision, protection, self-sacrifice and survival - but also degradation, desecration and defilement: the very worst we have to offer. Rape. Racism. Sexual slavery. The constant threat of death. Pollution. Oh yes, pollution. This work will surprise you and there are hints early on as tyres and plastic begin appearing anachronistically in the sewers, streams and desert. It takes an unexpectedly modern turn, I can tell you, and water is the key element here: water as a life source during drought, a killer during floods and a purifier too, because I also mean the pollution of innocence.
"The Prophet has said that every child is born with a natural disposition - perfect and lacking nothing - until marred by this world."
Both Dodola and Cham / Zam / Habibi see far too much of the world far too early on.
When their land dried up with drought, Dodola's parents sold her into marriage. That was the end of her purity. But it was also the beginning of her literary and religious education, for her husband copied manuscripts which she then learned to read. But her husband's soon murdered, she is abducted and about to be sold into slavery when she finds a young baby bawling alone on the ground. Seizing her one opportunity she scoops him up and escapes, seeking refuge in a boat in the middle of the desert. It's there we first find them, Zam and Dodola, three years later, "afloat" on the prow of their boat.
They survive safely for years, Dodola passing on the stories she'd learned from the Qur'an to soothe him to sleep, to bring them together, to motivate, educate and divert him. The boy was originally called Cham, the name of Noah's third son who was born black then cursed, but to release them both from their past she renames him Zam (and calls him Habibi - "my beloved") after the sacred well of Zamzam which gushed from the feet of young Ishmael when he and his mother were dying of thirst in the desert. It's from this point on that Zam and water become inextricably linked in the story whether as a means of last-minute rescue, purification or as its provider. At first it's the water they bathe naked in together.
"I wash and wash, but still my skin is darker than yours. Is it because I am dirty?"
Zam asks this quite innocently for when he was a mere three she was but twelve. But by the time he turns twelve, Dodola is twenty-one and he starts having entirely natural but, well, really dirty thoughts about her. Whereas they used to wash together, they can't; whereas they used to share a bed together, Zam wrapped in Dodola's arms
now it gives him an erection and it starts to tear them apart in a way which will have a profound, emasculatory effect on the boy after Dodola is abducted yet again and sold into sexual slavery in a Sultan's harem, and he's left to fend for himself in the nearby village, burning with desire and a fever born of starvation.
And that, I kid you not, is when their journeys really begin during years of tortuous separation.
I have four pages here crammed with notes and quotes but they give far too much away. What I hope I've established is the bond between our two metaphorical orphans left to nurture each other and fend for themselves in an environment poor in resources, rich only in predators. Male predators, it should be emphasised, imposing their lust on women, although there are a couple of exceptions (and not just the Eunuchs), most notably the "modern-day" Noah and literal fisher of men whose fishing ground is actually a squalid, disease-ridden river of effluence. It's his turn to become the provider and that sequence is pure Will Eisner - positively effervescent - you'll recognise that when you get there!
The biblical Noah also shows up in the one pure burst of comedy here as Dodola and Habibi imagine what life must really have been like on an Ark stuffed to capacity with animals picked in pairs for the purpose of breeding, yet obviously asked to forgo that pleasure for the duration of their stay: there's just no room at the inn, as it were! The treatment of Noah's atheistic wife, forbidden entry to the Ark is hilariously irreverent ("Next time, try believing in God!" he bellows from above as she stands in supplication, waste-deep in water.) and I laughed out loud as the animals went in two by two, male and female, the snails asking each other
"Do we count? We're hermaphroditic?"
"I'll play 'bottom'."
There's a superb sequence during which Dodola strives to earn her freedom from the Sultan during his challenge to turn water into gold. She sneaks into the all-male library (women not being trusted to decide for themselves which writings are safe and which are sinful) to study the ancient art of alchemy, but in the end finds a far more ingenious answer for herself, once more proving which of the two is more valuable.
But yes, on the whole, it's a book about love and survival and although Dodola and Habibi endure against all odds and adversity, I don't think Thompson is overly optimistic about the human race as a whole. We're greedy, overpopulated and self-destructive.
"Why create man in the first place? Man forsakes his Creator. Man desecrates Creation."
"We've poisoned the earth, and we've poisoned ourselves."
We've also poisoned those life-sustaining waters to the extent that they become death-dealing cesspits of disease; we've raped the environment to the extent that modern-day floods of biblical proportion need no mythology to explain them, just global warming; and then we go and build dams in China etc. which actively flood out the plain-dwellers below. In fact, here's a telling sentence given how much of the book is about slavery:
"Thanks to the dam, our home is no longer slave to flood or drought. We own the water instead of the other way round."
Then we package it plastic bottles which end up where, precisely? It's all here, trust me, including the water-bottling factory, the modern day ownership of water presaged well before by others selling what should be a universally commodity and a gift to all from God. I think that's Thompson's point.
This is my book of the year so far. We've anticipated it keenly for half a decade and for me it delivered on every single front. Better still, it surprised me. I relished its religious aspects - the sacred shapes, the magic squares, the calligraphic iconography, numerology and the way they all slotted together - because Craig married them both imaginatively and faithfully to the central narrative at each particular juncture and then finally, thematically, to love above fear. Structurally it's astonishing, and it'd be very much surprised if many of these pages didn't require a great deal of judicious juggling. Visually it is breath-takingly beautiful, each page alive with one flourish or another, and I don't just mean the ridiculously detailed border frames, chapter pages, the Jinn, the dreams or the dives into the stream (although they were particularly stunning); I mean unexpected frames like the struggle three-thirds of the way down on page 199 between Dodola and the thieves, and some damn fine chase sequences too.
But above all I relished this thematically. It all ties together:
Temptation, torment, and feverish dreams.
"After battle the Prophet said, "We have returned from the Lesser Jihad to the Greater Jihad." When asked "What is the Greater Jihad?" he replied; "It is the struggle against oneself."
Gender, race, sex, slavery and violence.
"It's misogynistic, racist
vilifies the descendants of Cham," sighs Dodola of the legend of the Sultan and the magical fish.
It's about the power of words, a love of stories. Food and water. Life and death. It's no coincidence that the Sultan's gardener is his executioner too. Just look at that fountain with its water cascading from the skulls' empty eye sockets!
But above all, it seems to me, it's about protection, provision, sacrifice and survival - spiritual and biological - and a most unusual love story under conditions which seem determined to thwart it.
"Sweet dreams, little Zam. I hope that we'll make it."
From the creator of BLANKETS which is now available in hardcover and softcover.