Page 45 Review by Stephen
"There was no possibility of hiding anywhere today."
That opening sentence is a belter. The one word "today" is weighted with implication: of all the many days during which Hélène had hoped to hide, and all the many hours spent dreading each day that she can't.
So many adults will remember them well, while many still at school will recognise this as an awful, terrifying, daily endurance test for which they revise far more thoroughly than any academic exam - in advance, in excruciating detail; over and over in their heads.
This cold, bleak and solitary existence is reflected in the predominantly monotone art, on the very first page of hard concrete and empty space before zooming in on the featureless, open playground (with no cover, no colour) where no one's at play. They are ambling idly on their own or huddled in groups, waiting for their next victim. There's a panel of them on the third page, empty shapes against a raw, black background, laughing like hyenas in the dark.
It wasn't always this way. At one point Hélène was well-in with Geneviève, Anne-Julie, Chloé and Sarah, sharing their crush on crinoline dresses which were oh so very much the in-thing. They bought them at vintage stores, picking out the prettiest even though they smelled of mothballs. Well, Hélène didn't. Hélène couldn't: they cost money. But eventually, late one night, her loving mother stayed up late in the laundry room after having completed so many other domestic tasks and she made Hélène a dress of her very own, fresh and free from the whiff of mothballs. Hélène knows how weary her mother must have been.
"I imagine her running out of thread just before she'd done. I imagine her having to change the bobbin
and threading the needle for the twentieth time
saying to herself out loud so just maybe someone will hear her, even though by now everyone's in bed, "I'm so tired I could die.""
It was, alas, that very dress which proved our narrator's undoing.
And, you know, there are worse things than being laughed at behind your back. The worst is when the sniggering bullies do it right in front of you, gathering together just to one side, in groups or in pairs, then deliberately catching your eye so that you know they are bitching about you. Perhaps they have stood there waiting for you to spot the graffiti they've scrawled on the walls of a toilet cubicle: "Hélène weighs 216!" "She smells like B.O.!" Imagine being trapped on a bus with them, sitting alone, trying to look busy with a book but reading few lines because instead your head is filled with their intentionally just-loud-enough snipes.
Britt Fanny nails the way we self-conscious outsiders try not to look lonely or left-out: by busying ourselves reading or pretending to look for something important in our bags. Meanwhile Isabelle Arsenault time after time shows Hélène alone, surrounded by space, either in fact or out her depth in her mind. There are lots of lovely expressionistic flourishes like that: the sudden explosion of lush foliage behind a stark city bench as she sits with her mother eating an ice cream. A respite. Bliss.
There are also bursts of colour as Hélène immerses herself in Charlotte Brönte's Jane Eyre from which she takes comfort and from which, later on, she is in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions. Alas, Hélène has already drawn all the wrong conclusions from the escalating jibes about her weight.
"Geneviève announces in her pinched voice for all to hear, "I stuck a fork in your butt, but you're so fat you didn't feel a thing!!" As everyone turns to look at me, the world - even the air itself - jerks to a standstill.
"My heart stops. And waits.
"For anything. Rescue. Reinforcements. The end of the world with any luck."
As to the conclusions drawn
"We ate with spoons this morning. But I can't help wonder, I'll wonder for the longest time, if Geneviève really did what she said."
You may have noticed from the start that Arsenault's depiction of Hélène is at odds with her brainwashed conviction that she is nothing but "a big fat sausage". She never acts on her impulses, she never speaks her thoughts. For most of the book Hélène never speaks at all - to anyone. She has been effectively silenced, suffocated, paralysed. Will everyone always look away when she's picked on? Is she doomed to her solitary silence, all drab and grey?
Well, there is the fox
It's an enormous powerful book, so attractively, vibrantly drawn. Arsenault's trees bend beautifully, reaching for the sky. Her foliage is ever so lush, even in black, white and grey, occasionally putting me in mind of Tove Jansson's very first MOOMIN book, THE MOOMINS AND THE GREAT FLOOD - you can even see it on Tove Jansson's cover! And, oh, when the colour kicks in!
While reading this I hadn't thought of it as a children's book: I was thinking of it selling to those who bought the likes of SUSCEPTIBLE by Geneviève Castrée, and I'm positive it will. But as a graphic novel for Young Adults right into their teens I know it will resonate as sympathetically as Hope Larson's CHIGGERS.
A big tip of the hat to NOW AND THEN's Sally Jane Thompson for recommending this to me. We like to think we've been pretty thorough at spotting the very best books in advance over the last twenty years, but everyone needs a nudge now and then and I'm so enormously grateful to Sally!