Unsettling + beautiful: Kate Brown's Fish + Chocolate

Comics review.

Fish+ Chocolate

Kate Brown

SelfMadeHero, 128pp, £14.99

Fish + Chocolate is unsettling. Part of the reason I feel that way might be the route I have taken through the work of Kate Brown, the creator of this collection of three short stories. The majority of Brown's work to date has been for the all-ages comics the DFC and its spiritual successor the Phoenix, where she created adventure stories with a slightly darker twist than most work for children. Spider Moon, serialised in the DFC Weekly, was cruelly cut short by the cancellation of its parent title, and only reached the end of the first of an intended five-volume run, but the Lost Boy, about a shipwrecked young boy and his lemur, launched with more achievable aims, and finished its 35 episode run last August. (Owing to the impressive tautness of the Phoenix, those 35 episodes only amount to 70 pages)

The Lost Boy was one of the slower stories in the first six months of the Phoenix, taking too long to subvert the boy-goes-on-treasure-hunt plot with the menace of the islands other inhabitants. Those shadowy figures would become the focus of the story, but I fear by the time Brown played her hand, the immediate thrill of Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron's Pirates of Pangaea may have proved more seductive. (The latter also had pirates and dinosaurs, basically rendering it eight-year-old kryptonite)

What the Lost Boy really had going for it, though, was Brown's art. Expressive characters — well, character — and beautiful foliage (it's a niche talent, but it's a talent nonetheless) combined with her keen understanding of the ability of the palette of a work to set the mood to instantly evoke the tropical paradise her hero was stuck on. That's an important skill, given the constrained space she had to work in.

In Fish + Chocolate, we get to see Brown in the exact opposite mode. Where Spider Moon was for all ages, the three short stories contained here are emphatically adult in tone, and one is fairly explicit to boot. And where the Lost Boy was compressed down into just two pages an episode, these are decompressed, allowing her art and characters room to breath.

The best of the shorts is the opening one, "the Piper Man". It's a loose retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, set in the modern day with a single mum and her two kids. We all know the ending of the fable; but we also all know the stereotype of the creepy weirdo who plays with other people's children. It's a stereotype that many—including the mother in the story—aren't quite comfortable with, but who's going to be the one to let their principles get in the way of their children's safety? And so the conflict isn't just between the mother and her kids. It's also an internal one, as she tries to summon up the courage to keep the piper man away for good.

"The Cherry Tree" doesn't wear its plot on its sleeve in the same way. It still concerns the relationship of a mother and her child (as do all three stories in the book) and in the end, tragedy ensues all the same. But the menace here is entirely conveyed through tone and setting. Prisca and her mother have moved into a new house with a cherry tree in the garden, which, both passively and actively, enters the daughter's live. But Prisca is left to her own devices, and the negligence takes its toll.

Both Cherry Tree and Piper Man also use the same mastery of colouring that Brown demonstrated in Lost Boy to great effect. As the stories go on, and menace creeps in, the colour slowly drains from the palette. The difference, when you look back and forth, is stark; but you barely notice it when reading through. The similarities also demonstrate attention to the placing of the two stories in the book. In Piper Man, the menace is explicit, and the desaturation serves to emphasise that, but by Cherry Tree, the same effect is already mentally associated with menace. The pages thus unsettle, without any good reason why. Until the end of that story, that is. That pattern is subverted in the final story, Matroyshka, which begins desaturated after tragedy has already occurred. It's a gut-wrenching depiction of mental illness, but ultimately a hopeful one as well.

Fish + Chocolate is the work of a phenomenally talented author. Were it not frequently wordless, it would be called "literary"; were they not telling stories, the images alone would be art. Instead, it's just damn good comics.

Fish + Chocolate is the work of a phenomenally talented author.

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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem