Page 45 Review by Stephen
Young Adult literature at its most intelligent, pertinent and affecting, this graphic novel adaptation of award-winning prose comes highly recommended.
"This is growing up, isn't it?"
"I think it is."
It's not going to be easy.
We make things so difficult for ourselves, don't we? Racial prejudice is as ridiculous and unreasoned as it is vile and unnecessary, yet we've polluted our history and corrupted our children with it for millennia. It's also the biggest source of rank hypocrisy outside of organised religions battling each other for authenticity and superiority whilst spreading lies and hatred about "the other". It's an insult to our God-given intelligence.
With a single, simple, straightforward if comprehensive inversion Malorie Blackman eloquently exposes how we complicate everything from friendship to family and every aspect of society just because of the colour of our skins. How utterly superficial of us.
Enhanced by John Aggs with the most tender art imaginable which breaks into stark brutality, the key success is in making you care: by making it personal. And despite the best intentions and the very real love of the two lead protagonists, Sephy and Callum, no one is perfect: everyone will make mistakes which will make you physically wince.
Persephone Hadley and Callum McGregor have been friends since early childhood. Callum's mother Meggie worked for Mrs Hadley as Sephy's nanny and on sunny summer days she was allowed to bring Callum along to play. On the surface it seemed idyllic. But when Meggie failed to produce an alibi for Mrs Hadley for an evening's affair while Mr Hadley was away, she was summarily sacked after fourteen years of faithful service.
Flash forward a few years and it hasn't stopped Sephy and Callum from meeting up on the beach, their romance tentatively blossoming. The future still looks as bright as can be. But back home their families are showing fractures - massive ones at the McGregors' - and it's going to grow very dark indeed.
So what's the big schism? It's race and racism, I'm afraid.
The comprehensive inversion...? In this world of white Noughts and black Crosses, the Noughts never created empires through military and economic conquest. It's the Crosses who have always called the shots. They do to this day, whose social conditions approximate America's in the early 1960s as recollected by Congressman John Lewis in MARCH Book 2.
Seph is a Cross who comes from one of the most privileged families of all: her father is a ruthless, top-tier, two-faced politician who only reluctantly agreed to a few Noughts entering Cross schools under the presumption that so few would qualify academically that the difference would be negligible. Because Noughts are all thick, aren't they?
Callum, a Nought, has just qualified.
The McGregors' reaction to this news is far more complicated than would be obvious, but then this is a complex book full of complicated and conflicted individuals. Yes, individuals! In spite of the very real domestic hardship - and personal affront - that her dismissal by Mrs Hadley caused the McGregors, Callum's mother Meggie won't abide use of racial slur 'dagger'. But the two more vocal members of the family - his father and older brother - have grown increasingly resentful. Dare I even use the term "militant"? As to Callum's sister, Lynny, she seems withdrawn and confused about her own racial identity. Oh, just you wait, but again - not as obvious as you may think. She has some wise words to counter Callum's optimism about being allowed access into a Cross school, then, potentially, university:
"Just remember, Callum. When you're floating up in your bubble, they have a habit of bursting. The higher you climb, the further you have to fall."
Are they wise words, or a defeatist attitude to making a difference? Whatever you believe, reality has a horrible habit of slapping sleepy dreams wide awake. We are, if you remember, in the realms of Congressman John Lewis' very real MARCH Book 2 when the decree for the desegregation of schools was met with mendacity and obstruction by local government and law enforcement.
"Noughts are treated the same way here as they would be outside..." says the feckless headmaster.
"And that's the problem!" argues a teacher who typically cares.
Callum's reception will not prove pretty, but it is Seph whom I felt for the most. Time and again, in spite of Callum's self-sacrificial advice to stay away from him at school, she tries to intervene against the rife racial prejudice, putting her neck on the line by joining him at lunch - a brave display of public support - then reaping the wrath of her friends. Did I mention that the racial slur for white Noughts was 'blanker'? Seph's called a "blanker-lover" (just as I was, aged 14, once called a dagger-lover*) and is physically struck in the face.
"Stick with your own kind! I don't care who your Dad is! Sit with blankers again, we'll treat you like one! You need to wake up and check which side you are on!"
Ugh. One of us. One of them. One of your own kind. Blackman recalls the divisive, dismissive language so accurately. It was vital that she came up with fictional racist language so that no one had to repeatedly read the real atrocity yet could still experience its vicious and sickening impact. And how cleverly did Malorie coin the denigratory term 'blanker'?
"Blank by name, blank by nature.
"Blank white faces, no colour in them. Blank minds, empty and stupid. Blank, blank, blank.
"That's why they serve us and not the other way around."
Jeepers, but John Aggs excels here.
The young ladies aren't demons or demonised. They're perfectly approachable, pretty and chic and exactly the age they're supposed to be. They look loving and reasonable until the moment they're neither. You wouldn't see their ire coming, either.
Aggs' Callum with his blonde, floppy hair and English-Rose air will have you grinning with affection and wishing that Callum was in a completely different graphic novel if only for his own sake. Sephy and her older sister Minerva you instinctively recognise as siblings, each in their own way influenced by their mother's fashion sense but with entirely natural departures. I love an artist who thinks of these things!
It was our Jonathan who spotted the similarity in style to THE DROWNERS' Nabiel Kanan whose equally school-centred, teen-centric but out-of-print EXIT - to which this is closer - was sublime. It's there in the crisp lines, tree textures and shadows cast too! It's so obvious now that I see it. There's a particular panel I don't have for you here in which, after a moment of misunderstanding resolved, Sephy reaches up to Callum's chest with the most delicate hand gesture, their eyes meeting.
"So am I."
And you just know that they're going to be okay.
You know that, don't you?
One of the smartest adaptations I've ever read, this feels neither overly abridged nor cluttered - both a real risk when transforming prose into comics, but Ian Edginton has judged it to perfection.
In terms of the ingenious reversal and what we all take for granted, one moment that particularly stuck in my mind was this, when Sephy - worriedly and with genuine concern - asks a pale-skinned Nought girl how she's faring after being bashed about with a brick:
"How's your head?"
"It's okay. Thanks for asking."
"That plaster's a bit noticeable."
"They don't sell pink plasters. Only brown ones."
I'll let that sink in, if I may.
I could go on for pages - another real risk when this is not printed on paper - but you need to discover this for yourselves. I'm hugely indebted to its artist John Aggs for taking the time and trouble to send me interior art which I couldn't find anywhere online.
*Sadly the word used was not 'dagger'. But you get the gist.
If you dehumanise others then you dehumanise yourself.