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What We Don't Talk About

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What We Don't Talk About back

Charlot Kristensen


Page 45 Review by Stephen

“People will only see racism when it’s at its most extreme...
“But racism is more than just slurs and violent acts.”
“I think it’s important to be true to yourself.
“If something feels wrong you should speak up.”

For over 10 years I wrote up to 15 comic and graphic novels reviews every week – on my days off.

Two years ago I decided I wanted my life back, and for a year I've been virtually silent.

But this book is worth missing a whole month of anyone’s leisure time, so I’m back.

Charlot Kristensen, everybody: this is her debut graphic novel. I hope you are paying attention, for Kristensen has created something deceptively complex with extraordinary economy – and the lushest of lines, form and colour enhanced by carefully chosen light throughout – that will reward your careful consideration with much to ponder upon.

It’s time to meet Farai and Adam.

“I really want to get along with Adam’s family...
“Our relationship means a lot to me...
“But I also want him to be there for me.
“Is that too much to ask?”

No, if we are as committed as we claim, it is the very least we can do for our dearly beloveds: listen long enough to understand and, if necessary, back them to the hilt. It’s called love and loyalty. Especially since Farai’s already reassured her own caring and concerned mother, “I already told you, mom, he’s different.”

But what happens when your boyfriend’s parents turn out to be nightmares, you find yourself trapped in their affluent home territory and therefore beholden to their oh-so-generous hospitality, then it transpires that said boyfriend...

Well, that’s “nurture” for you.

After two years of not-so-subtle stalling for which Farai gives Adam the benefit of what must inevitably be considerable doubt, Adam has finally invited Farai to meet his parents, so they travel to Windermere by train.

Farai is excited! Adam is angry. Farai’s tardiness almost made them miss their train. But it didn’t; they haven’t. So why is Adam so angry?

Farai is an artist, a positive and inspired young artist, secure in her identity. Adam is a musician. He’s really very pretty. He’s kind of lanky with a disarming flop of hair falling over one side of his forehead. Farai is full-on beautiful with large, pool-deep eyes, rich lips and a casually tied-up bunch of black hair threaded through with blue and purple highlights. They’re a very attractive couple.

But for Adam’s mother, Martha, Farai is a new toy to play with, a sick power trip to take pleasure in, and a goal to be achieved. Can you guess what it is yet?

Hegemony must be maintained at all costs.

Kristensen has created an appallingly real and ever so clever ogre in Adam’s constantly angling mother. She’s a domineering bully who knows precisely what she is doing. She’s all charm and smarm to begin with, while her husband Charles has been whittled away over the years into being the most monosyllabic, compliant and complicit co-combatant that any garrulous general could hope for. And make no mistake: Martha’s vile and outrageously forthright racism is far from casual or accidental. She bides her time and then she pounces before pulling back, wounded blood drawn:

It’s cold, calculated and strategically deployed then, as I say, skilfully withdrawn at the very last minute, leaving Farai with little room to manoeuvre by speaking out or conferring with Adam whose default setting is defensive: especially of his parents.

“Ah, maybe you’re reading too much into it.”

That’s always a favourite of mine.

“Adam, I know what I heard. And that’s not all of it. Your dad and mom were talking about an African gardener they fired just because he forgot to water a plant. They said he had a funny African name and they couldn’t understand his accent.”
“Farai... maybe they didn’t tell you the whole story, I don’t know. I’m sure there were other problems.”

There’s a constant sneer on Martha’s mouth, and disdain in her eyes, She’s smug, supercilious, condescending and patronising.

“Look, Farai Darling, I’m only referring to common knowledge. There’s no need to get so worked up.”

Also: “Every child knows...”

I had an older relative who used to greet almost everything I said with, “Oh don’t be so stupid!” And I’m not, really, stupid. But using nebulous language like that is a very clever way of dismissively shutting down counter-arguments.

Deliciously, Kristensen’s art throughout – in defiantly uplifting and colourful contrast to Martha’s withering, caustic toxicity – is an exuberant, life-affirming, joy!

Oh, where there are inevitable, final flare-ups of anger, they are projected with jagged, barb-edged speech balloons and equally angular gesticulations! And Kristensen’s expressions are ever so subtle and telling.

But predominantly there is a celebration of truly juicy light, form and colour, of fabrics and foliage and stone; beams and streams of sunshine cascading in through the windows, elevating everything inside! And out on Lake Windermere – from mid-summer day to shepherd’s-delight dusk – there is an awe-inspiring beauty in the wide-open, bright sky above and the dazzling, tiny white diamonds dancing on the deeper blue waters below which is entirely immune to the self-satisfied shadows cast in between.

“Look!” the art demands. “Look at what could be yours! Look at what is yours for the taking! Look at what you are missing!”

It’s actually ungrateful, isn’t it?

I leave you with Martha fishing for what she loves most instead – a reaction – this time feeling no need to find any sort of emollient whatsoever to what she erroneously considers will be her coup de grace:

“Oh that’s interesting, Farai. That... thing on your head.”
“Oh! You mean my headwrap.”
“Is that what it’s called? I didn’t know you were a Muslim.”
“Ahh I think you’ve misunderstood... This is a very common head attire in my culture. And there are many people from across the world who wear head coverings for different reasons.”
“Oh, so you’re not a Muslim?”
“No I’m not...”
“Oh thank god! I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”

By contrast, you’ll be ever so proud of Farai’s response.

Martha delights in playing cat and mouse games but this time she’s misjudged her victim, for Farai – however calm, reasonable and accommodating of as much of Martha’s cold, calculated and malicious behaviour as she can be – is no mouse.

That would be Martha’s long-dominated son.

I cannot wait to see and hear more from Charlot Kristensen, whose work I already rate right up there alongside early Tillie Walden (I LOVE THIS PART and A CITY INSIDE etc), another of Avery Hill’s many discoveries whose talent they recognised in her mid-teens then gently shepherded towards producing longer-form works like ON A SUNBEAM and her autobiographical SPINNING, all four of which have sold in their hundreds here.

Now that really is true nurture for you!

Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month, October 2020.

I mean, obviously.