A tragedy with talking animals, Abelard isn’t as sickeningly cute as its cover implies

Abelard - Gaston

The first impression of you’ll get of Abelard is that it’s a cute talking animal book. You might think it’s too cute. You might wonder how it made it into NBM’s ComicsLit portfolio, which isn’t well known for its cute animal stories. This is the first clue that perhaps all is not what it seems. Perhaps it’s not aimed at very young kids or misty-eyed romantics.

Clue two comes within the first few pages of the book. The cute talking animals are soon embroiled in a game of poker, which stops them appearing quite so twee. Someone gets drunk and starts slagging off women. And young Abelard, a little bird with big ideas, decides to leave the relative peace and tranquillity of home (with its poker nights and misogynous chit chat) and go in search of a more exciting life in America.

AbelardAbelard is naive and trusting. On his travels he meets a variety of characters, some good but rough-edged, others looking to take him for everything he’s got. He also meets Gaston, a gruff bear, also on his way to America. He’s a no-nonsense kind of bear but warms to Abelard eventually. However, even with Gaston by his side, Abelard struggles to make headway against the tidal wave of tragedy that engulfs him, despite his best efforts to remain cheerful and kind.

It’s a strange mix of bleak and cute. The first half will have you wondering why you’re reading a book that seems designed for kids, if it weren’t for the adult language and themes. The second half brings the realisation that this isn’t a kids’ book, it’s just been made to look like one. The cover might make it look like a soppy greetings card but the tragic experiences of Abelard leave you with an appreciation that this is not the kind of story you’ll want to reading with young children at bedtime.

It didn’t quite work for me. The illustration is just too cute, even though it’s scratchy and edgy in places. Abelard’s character is too twee, and despite the grim circumstances that befall him, his personality barely progresses.

If you like tragedy, particularly applied to cute bears and ducks, then maybe you’ll enjoy it. But it’s a strange mix that won’t be to everyone’s taste: too bleak for cute animal lovers; and too cute for those looking for something edgy and dark.

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