Art by: Craig Thompson
Publisher: Pantheon Books
First published: 2011
Over the last seven years it could have been all too easy to mourn the loss of Craig Thompson, the writer and illustrator of the brilliant Good-bye, Chunky Rice and Blankets. Seven years is a long, long time to disappear from the public eye, especially after such enormous critical acclaim. However, Craig Thompson is back with a new book, and no matter how hard you wished for it, the 672-page epic that is Habibi can’t fail to delight.
Habibi has classic written all over it. It’s a modern literary triumph, a book so broad and magical in its scope, only a master could pull it off. This is no ordinary comic, it is a complete work of art. Beautiful, thought provoking, both timeless and of its time, it’s barely possible to even begin to describe it (but don’t worry, I’ll give it a go).
The story tracks the lives of Dodola and Zam, two orphans who escape the slave trade and create a home for themselves in a boat they discover, stuck in the middle of a desert. Dodola is nine years older than the baby Zam, so she mothers him, nurtures him and teaches him.
However, with no income and no supplies, she finds herself having to trade her body for food. Sexual slavery is one of a number of themes running throughout the book, and Thompson doesn’t shy away from depicting the gut churning horror of what this means.
One day Dodola doesn’t come back, and Zam is left to make his own way in the world. Wracked with guilt over what his carer had to go through, and too immature and lost to deal with the world’s predators, he makes a few bad decisions out of sheer desperation.
Both characters drift through a number of worlds and experiences. One of the literary strengths of the book is its juxtaposition of the first and third worlds, and the modern with the seemingly ancient or classical. Placing the book in space and time is tricky. The setting is Middle Eastern, but the themes and experiences of the characters, while infused with exotic mystery and hardship, have much of the universal about them.
Dodola teaches Zam to read and write, and tells him stories from the Quran. The book is full of Arabic calligraphy, beautiful geometric patterns and stunning backgrounds, blending into one another in whorls. There are stories within stories, that expand on the narrative and connect the book together. This isn’t mere decoration. Everything feels meticulously planned and carefully placed, every word and every illustrative line, a part of the sweeping whole.
The story leaps backwards and forwards in time, revealing more of the characters’ history as we explore their lives. It’s a credit to Thompson’s clarity of vision that through the 672 pages, there’s barely a moment where the reader can get lost. There’s a certain magical realism about the book, and a deep spiritualism, founded on Islam, but also bringing in elements of the characters’ own lives and environments.
I could go on and on about the story, having barely scratched the surface here, but I want you to unfold it as I did, one page at a time, in all its majestic wonder. To take any of that away from a potential reader would be a crime against literature.
Habibi is a beautiful book to hold in your hands, to sit and consume, to wonder at its creation. It’s little wonder this book took seven years to produce. It looks more like it should have taken 70. It’s bound to go down as a classic of the medium.
Each of its 672 pages are essential, and never has such a thick book been so economical with its content. Habibi is close to perfection. An awe-inspiring read you can’t afford to miss.
By Andy Shaw • Aug 16th, 2011
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