Now I know what you’re thinking; “Hey that looks a lot like Persepolis!” And I don’t blame you, for that was my initial reaction as well. I do feel bad for Abirached having to deal with that comparison for these next few years, but something tells me when she starts winning awards for this graphic memoir, that she’ll be put on the same pedestal as Marjane Satrapi by fans. Unlike other reviews for A Game for Swallows, my review won’t constantly be comparing both titles in a Who Wore It Best? kind of approach. This isn’t a competition, for the fans of this genre will be the true winners every time.
Taking place in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1980’s, A Game for Swallows revolves around a day in the life of Zeina and her younger brother, as they patiently await their parents return home from their grandmother’s a few blocks away. What should have been a quick jaunt through alleys and between houses turns into several hours of waiting, and more neighbors of the apartment complex start to arrive as the shelling starts. Did I mention there’s also a sniper positioned between the two houses? It’s a complicated journey just to see loved ones a few blocks away during wartime, but this is what Zeina grew up in, and is the only thing she knows. While I’m no expert on world affairs, I can’t help but compare the non-stop violence in the 1980’s in the region to the modern day violence in the Middle East. The constantly repeating cycle of children growing up in war, experiencing what is considered normal, and sometimes losing friends and loved ones to a single bullet or bomb.
I do apologize if I’m leading you to believe that’s all this graphic novel is about, for that is simply not the case. While we do focus on Zeina and her brother anxiously awaiting their parents in the foyer, it’s the steady stream of neighbors who join them that I found to be most fascinating. To see the community spirit come alive through the pages gives the reader a pleasant sense of hope and understanding, for though we’re worlds apart, the same basic blueprint of kindness and human decency is shared when times are tough. There’s Chucri, the Jack of all trades of the complex who keeps the electricity going during the shelling with his generator. Ernest Challita, the dapper French teacher who memorizes complete sections of Cyrano de Bergerac by heart, and has an amazing mustache. The beautiful Madame Linda, the one-time Miss Lebanon back in the 1960’s. The list of colorful characters goes on, but each one has their own special background explained and explored within the pages, and how they all came to roost in the apartment complex, and more specifically the foyer that night. Some of their tales are more tragic than others, but it’s through tragedy that the reader is able to find beauty.
Abirached’s art style is a beautiful blend of bold and slender lines, spots, swirls, and dots. The black and white layout is reminiscent of other graphic memoirs, but at this point I believe the black and white motif to be a staple of the genre. The look and feel of the characters reminds me of the art style from that culture, and I can definitely picture Abirached being influenced by the world she grew up in. The amount of detail that’s put into the designs and characters is wonderful, and absolutely aesthetically pleasing to the eyes. No two characters are alike visually, and the transitions between panels and pages flows smoothly because the art allows it to do so.
I can see this book, like Persepolis, being taught in classrooms. It’s important to know what’s going on in the world, and to have a graphic novel such as A Game for Swallows give you a ringside seat to the struggles in one part of the world is very enlightening and educational. Abirached does a fantastic job relaying a taste of her life through 192 pages, and has me craving more. What happens next? I would definitely be interested in reading more about her life, and what other struggles she may have had to face growing up.
If I were Zeina Abirached, I’d be making space on my bookshelf for the Best Reality-Based Work Eisner come this July.