The one with the wise ram from Wales

Carol Swain, Gast (2014)

When I have a cold I am a grumbler. (I apologize in advance for any unjustified rant, only likely to be interrupted by a sneeze and a cough… lucky you, safe on the other side of the screen!) But I was a grumbler about this book even before I got this head cold. This book was so inconvenient! Huge and heavy, how was I supposed to lug it around from my workplace library to my home and return? It seemed hardly worth it.

The art (charcoal pencil) was so gray and seemed so slow, each tiny vignette for a switch of point of view, an exchange of looks, a silence after a question, a scribbled note on a notebook. So few words, as if the writer had nothing to tell!

But after a few pages like that, my own reading pace slowed down to accommodate the special, minimalist tone of graphic narration.

Helen is a lonely teenager. Her family has recently settled down in Wales and her parents give her free reign to explore the territory around their house (she has been known to bring back skulls of dead animals). She likes to take notes and sketches in her notebook about animals. One day a farmer neighbor tells her that a very special bird called Emrys committed suicide close to their home. She starts to investigate, and there…

She asks questions to the neighboring dogs and they politely (well, rather grundgingly) oblige her. One dog tell her that Emrys had no feather. (Yeah, there’s no content warning before this one slips into a quiet, everything-is-normal variety of magical realism)

Dogs are not the talkative kind, but they advise her to talk to the wise ram. Turns out that the bird who died was actually the neighbor, a lonely farmer who raised sheep and liked to use makeup and cross-dress.

There’s little hope and little warmth in this graphic novel. Countryside is not romanticized (I’ve been to Wales, and in real life it’s a lot more beautiful and people are nicer!). Sheeps get slaughtered, villagers are not particularly kind to transvestite neighbors in their midst  or to newcomers, dogs can’t even stop themselves from biting in the middle of a conversation. But the girl is tenacious and has decided to understand Emrys at the best of her ability. Helen is a great character, non-judgmental and quiet, and we never know if she imagines talking to the animals or really can do it. At the end she finds a little warmth in (who would think so?) a small town and in the woman serving meals at a local diner.

The story is told from a distance, yet it has a generosity and empathy for the world’s beauties and imperfections. A really nice discovery.

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