Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached

One eventful day in the life of two small children during the civil war in Lebanon is told in the graphic novel memoir A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return. Author and artist Zeina Abirached was born in 1981. Beirut was a city of barricades and snipers. Her family had pretty much moved into the one part of their apartment that was safest: the foyer.

The story begins with a map and then a wordless series of outdoor images that set the scene. Stacks of concrete blocks and ranks of empty oil barrels are set up to protect buildings and pedestrians. Everything is marked by bullet holes. Metal shutters are drawn over the shops, including those with small signs proclaiming they are open. The image of a piano advertising a shuttered music store is a poignant reminder of the toll war takes on cultural life.
Carefree children,
worried parents.
Zeina Abirached (detail)

Abirached's monochrome stylized art is composed of tight lines, elegant and precise. Expanses of plain white or black contrast areas of intensely detailed patterns. The effect is striking. And so is the tale.

Note the pretty font with dots inside the letter O.
Zeina's parents have left her and her little brother alone when they go to her grandmother's house a few streets away, then heavy bombardment prevents their return.

The small foyer is the most secure room in the entire building, and gradually the neighbours are all gathered there with the children, waiting. The boredom, the restlessness, the fear, and the resignation experienced by trapped individuals -- Abirached's art portrays these emotions very well. The neighbour with a handlebar moustache pulls on it repeatedly. Panel by panel, cigarette smoke gradually envelops a smoker. Worry is expressed in sideways glances, small sighs.

We get to know the individuals and what comes through most strongly is a sense of community support. Zeina and her brother are in good hands, beloved. This is a remarkable book, suitable for readers from age 10 to adult.

Readalikes: Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi); Sami and the Time of the Troubles (Florence Parry Heide). For a much darker look at the war in Lebanon, there's Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman & David Polonsky).

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