Summing up this 320-page graphic novel in a few paragraphs is never going to do justice to its extraordinary depths. Set in the early 1800s, a young boy, Abel, is found washed up on the shores of Siam by a young sailor who has just come into the command of his own ship. Not all is as it seems with Abel, though, and much of the book is spent unravelling a tangled knot of relationships that revolve around him.
Abel is lead on a platonic journey of self-discovery by a mysterious prostitute, who teaches him an appreciation of poetry, from Coleridge to Wordsworth, to add to his already strangely encyclopaedic knowledge of seacraft.
She is an equally lost soul, devoted to one of her clients, Nathan, a restless captain who looks like he’s been hewn from the cliffs. He’s wedded to the oceans, but returns to his mistress as surely as the tide comes in twice a day.
Lastly there are three orphaned daughters, running a deserted inn, living under the shadow that their sailor father was a traitor to his country, without the wherewithal to clear his name because the events occurred half way around the world.
These characters are brilliantly defined by Teresa Radice’s script. From the controlled chaos of a ship’s deck in a storm to the illicit privacy of time shared in a madam’s boudoir, there’s a depth and authenticity to these multi-faceted individuals. The story is modern but such an homage to the literature of the time that it feels like it could have been carried through the ages, simply not appearing until the time was right to tell it.
Stefano Turconi’s illustration is exquisite. Drawn entirely in pencil, it looks like the storyboard of a Disney movie that could never be made: too long, too literary, too saucy, too magnificent to be realised in any way other than a chunky graphic novel. As individual panels the images look sketchy and unfinished. Linked into pages and an entire book, the story just dances its way to the end, the art as ethereal as the lives it documents, wispy lines captured in gentle breezes and blown, naturally, into a story that feels like it was always there.
There’s nothing here to poke holes in but it might be worth stating that this might not be a book for everyone. It’s perhaps overly literary, embracing the poetry of the time, whether its the classics woven through it, or the shanties that spill off the decks when the ships’ crews are at work. It’s long, but it never outstays its welcome, embracing the detail of every moment, leaving no brushed touch of the hands or pensive pause unstated. Then there’s the illustration, as fluid as the finest animation but embracing the book’s more adult themes without flinching. If the thought of such things gets your heart pounding, The Forbidden Harbor is going to be a divine treat.