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The River

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The River back

Alessandro Sanna


Page 45 Review by Stephen

A river is in constant flux.

Its very nature and purpose is a journey.

A coalescence of rain fallen from the sky which absorbs still more as it goes, it is its own transport to the sea.

Even its height and its girth ebb and flow. In the sunnier seasons its source may dry up or it may yield itself prematurely to the skies, but that is where the water was heading, inexorably, even via fauna and flora.

This theme of continual migration runs right through the book, a silent sequence of watercolour landscapes structured as a cycle of seasons; I was mildly surprised to see even evaporation alluded to in its quiet, closing moments. But it couldn't kick off with more of a bang.

That this will be a journey is suggested immediately by the movement on the very first page. As a wild sky erupts and its bruised-berry clouds burst, the last leaves of summer scatter in the squall and birds take flight - as does a dog and its master. Could there be a greater sense of urgency?

The horizon disappears behind a curtain of rain while the river's thin skin is lashed and slashed by the cascade. As we close in on its shattered surface there is a very real sense that the river is swelling. Sure enough the cyclist encounters a long line of locals - a very long line of locals - who seem to be watching and waiting. A second dog chases the first, and the cyclist overtakes cattle on the move, racing past tall, skeletal, Lombardy poplars to find another long line of locals, their silhouettes reflected in the ripples of the ever-rising river. They start shoring up the bank as the cyclist sets off on his last stretch home. Tomorrow it will look very different.

I love a wet brush and I love this cover anchored at the bottom by the same rich, rusty browns which draw your eye higher - along with the title and credit - to the sunken horizon, its partially submerged home, and the lone dog left peering anxiously in from the bow of a boat. Alessandro writes in the back:

Here the rule of thirds is fundamental if you want to see things as they really are: one-third earth and two-thirds sky. When the river rises, the proportions are reversed.

These proportions are maintained throughout the graphic novel bar each chapter's opening full-page flourish, dominated by the endless, open heavens.

The colours are phenomenal. Throughout the opening season ('Autumn') I couldn't get ice-cream associations out of my mind, the vanilla breaking through blackcurrant then blueberry frozen crush. I promise you many more palettes but have restricted the interior art to this one so that others remain a surprise.

They're not obvious, either: 'Winter' is uncommonly clement. Sanna reserves the traditional crisp blue for 'Spring' with snow-white blossoms budding and puffing on the stark, bare branches. Instead the emphasis is on warmth emanating from within, whether it's the children crowding at the windows of a school house, smoke rising from chimneys, breath drifting from open mouths or the calf emerging, seemingly white-hot from inside the womb. The overall effect of that stable sequence is like viewing it through a thermal scanner.

As for the carnival in 'Spring' it is a riot of colour with a real sense of sound, such as I've rarely seen outside Paul Peart-Smith's contribution to NELSON.

Apparently Alessandro's own river is The Po in north-eastern Italy but 'Summer' here is even more exotic than that - unless African elephants have migrated much further than I thought. The opening flash of colour there is so bright you'll be reaching for your shades.

It's an absolute masterpiece - and I rarely write that more than once in five years. It's fluid and instinctive yet carefully controlled.

And here's another thing I rarely do: suggest a soundtrack. But after you've floated through this a fair few times in silence, I'd heartily recommend David Sylvian's 'Gone To Earth' - the entire album kicking off with 'Taking The Veil' whose musical ripples match those painted here perfectly.
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