Before our history began, another now forgotten civilization thrived. The people who roamed Early Earth were much like us: curious, emotional, funny, ambitious, and vulnerable. In this series of illustrated and linked tales, Isabel Greenberg chronicles the explorations of a young man as he paddles from his home in the North Pole to the South Pole. There, he meets his true love, but their romance is ill-fated. Early Earth’s unusual and finicky polarity means the lovers can never touch.
Ah, but before you go thinking of this graphic novel as an angsty love story about the merits of abstinence, I would like you to read the following page*:
It all begins, as the storyteller says, with the “Three Sisters of Summer Island” and how they found a baby boy, abandoned and in need of a family. A family that the sisters were willing to provide- just not together. And so, they find a way to split the boy into three and each sister cares for one aspect of the boy’s soul. Until one day, the three boys meet and turn back into one entity. However, he is not whole at all. In fact, he is still missing a piece of himself. A piece that he is willing to search the world for. And he does.
On his way, he comes across some interesting people, each of whom have their own stories to share; ones that are as strange and delightful as the storyteller’s own.
(I actually did not include the last place he visits. It’s not the world’s biggest surprise, but it does feel a bit spoiler-y.)
What is interesting to me is the way the narrative is laid out. The first narrative, the one that describes the meeting between the boy and the girl is from the POV of a third-person omniscient narrator. One might even say it is a bit, erm, God-like:
But once the boy begins the story of the storyteller whose soul was accidentally split into four parts, the rest of the graphic novel is coloured by this storyteller’s cultural background. The people of the Land of Nord are a blend of indigenous peoples and their belief systems. Thus, the only Gods we see throughout the book is the Raven and his two kids. And just like the Nords are based on a kind of indigenous folk, the Brits (ha ha) are a kind of Vikings society- except that the women aren’t shield maidens, but are actual leaders. Even the wise old crone isn’t quite what she seems.
When the storyteller travels to Britanitarka he discovers that they have an uneasy relationship with the Nords. In a Scheherazade-esque move, the storyteller finds that the only way for him to survive is to keep telling stories. (And you do realize that, on some level, he is re-telling these stories in an effort to also save the life that he and his wife share together.) Something that repeats itself when he moves to Migdal Bavel, a place that hosts a blend of Asian and Eurasian cultures. Every time he tells a story, the nature of his storytelling shifts from being a gift, to being entertainment, to being a tool for escape. And every time a story unfolds, we get to see how differently truth functions in the mouths of various characters- from personal truth, to historical “fact”, to a kind of spiritual knowledge.
I really don’t want to give away anymore in terms of plot. As you can see, the art is a beautiful blend of deep blues, black, and white, with each chapter brought to life with the occasional inclusion of a fourth colour. Usually a bright one like red or yellow. I know the palette sounds limited, but wow, does it work its magic on the story! The dialogue is witty and reminiscent of old and clever folktales. The characters, including the Gods and the random monkeys, are absolutely charming. The resulting story is a wonder to behold- it fills up the space between the hardbound covers with a certain ease, just as it bridges the gap between the two lovers.
Somewhere between the chaos of life and death, fiction and non-fiction, romance and adventure, this story has been waiting to be told by the right person. As it turns out, that person is Isabelle Greenberg, so just read this book already, okay?
*Thanks to Steph and her curious cat Pippin for letting me use their sunny apartment for pictures!