Comics Review: Adamtine by Hannah Berry

Hannah Berry's horror story succeeds in doing something seemingly impossible: providing shocks in a comic.

Hannah Berry
Jonathan Cape, 104pp, £14.99

Horror is notoriously tricky to do in comics. The medium occupies an unhappy midpoint between film and prose, inheriting many of the weaknesses — when it comes to frights — from each, and few of the benefits.

The visual aspect often tempts writers to follow filmic routes to fear: shocks and violence abound, and slasher comics are almost as common as slasher flicks. The problem is obvious. No matter how skilled the author is, the reader controls the passage of time in a comic book. A shock can only come as fast as the turn of a page, and nothing can ever really jump out at you.

At the other side of things, though, comics don't rely nearly so much on your imagination as prose does. The scariest things are the unseen; but a comic full of the unseen is frequently just a lot of talking heads. It might succeed in inspiring fear, but it's not using the medium to its full potential.

That's one reason why body horror gets such a strong showing in comics. It succeeds in unsettling, rather than shocking, and is one of the styles where the longer you look at the page, the more upsetting it gets. Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman's Animal Man, or Si Spurrier and Javier Barreno's Crossed: Wish You Were Here (a very NSFW comic, that one) trap the eye on distended monstrosities, which you can't quite turn away from; while Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos' Alias arc "Purple" and Neal Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg's "24 Hours" in Sandman both presented stories of control and submission in ways which left me uneasy for weeks.

Adamtine can be seen as an attempt to do horror in a more traditional way, while using the quirks of the medium to ratchet up the fear. The mission statement, of sorts, is there on the cover: train tracks disappearing into the darkness, and then, at the very top, in black varnish on a black background, a sunken face peering out. The whole book is filled with motifs like that: hidden images, themes and plot elements which combine to, hopefully, trigger that part of your subconscious which warns you that something is deeply wrong.

The book opens in the aftermath of the disappearance of Rodney Moon, "The Postman", accused of being a serial killer whose modus operandi was to deliver notes to his victims describing some minor reason for their disappearance. Moon denied being the killer, but admitted to passing on the notes for the real culprit — a "bogeyman", with no name.

Four people, seemingly unconnected to each other and to the events involving Moon, are on a train out of London. But the train breaks down, and then the passengers disappear, leaving the four alone to face… something.

The plot has a structure similar to the sort of thing early Christopher Nolan films were known for. What seems like an incredibly complicated, multi-layered and time-jumping story comes together at the end in a way which makes you feel smart for being able to put it together into a linear narrative. You aren't that smart; it's just well-written. But try to ignore that fact.

There is a second layer to the book, one which rewards a further read-through, and that's the layer of references and hidden symbols. Adamtine clearly has an entire second narrative hidden away — the one the book opens after the conclusion of — and it's possible to discern a surprising amount of what happened through careful reading.

It's also possible to find, dotted throughout, more skull faces like those on the cover; and sly nods to earlier or upcoming events. This only goes so far though. While compelling, it also encourages a tendency to treat the book like a narrative version of Where's Wally; to overlook the forest because you're too busy trying to count all the trees.

Where the hidden images excel is in doing something seemingly impossible: providing shocks in a comic. As the creeping unease of the book unfolds, suddenly realising that the page you have been staring at for a couple of minutes has been staring back at you is a very unsettling feeling.

Oh, and one last thing: if you travel by overground rail, don't read this until the summer. Finding yourself on a train in the dark after finishing it is not a pleasant experience.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis