I’ve adored Glasgow-based Metaphrog’s Louis books for years and I’ve been really looking forward to their brand new book with their perpetual innocent abroad for months. And I am not disappointed. Night Salad begins with an accident, as Louis is working in his garden he trips and falls while handling some toxic chemical from a container delivered to him by the mysterious people who control the little world he lives and works in. In the spill he notices his pet bird FC’s cage has been knocked over and FC seems sick. Poor Louis is distraught – FC isn’t just a pet, he’s Louis’ companion and friend and the thought of him being sick, especially if the cause is Louis himself during the accident, is more than he can bear.
In his little square house in his little square garden Louis is quite isolated, little contact with others in his peculiar little world and now he finds himself desperate for someone he can ask for advice. He isn’t an expert in birds, he considers, so he needs help from someone, but who? Few people come to him apart from the postman and the strange-garbed figures who delivered the container that caused the accident. The advice machine offers no real help and a letter to his Aunt Alison – who Louis doesn’t really know anything about, but is one of his few points of human contact – seems to be in order, but will she be able to advise him how to help FC? Before he can find a way to help his little friend Louis finds himself growing ill, dizzy, lost. At first it seems an emotional reaction to the thought he caused harm to FC, but soon it is apparent Louis is really ill, collapsing in his garden. As he lies there his troubled mind takes him on an incredible journey. The bulk of the rest of the book is taken up with a delightful fantasy quest, through caverns, deserts and fabulous cities as Louis finds friends to help him as he searches for a cure for FC, the fruit of the Raining Tree.
As with previous Louis books though, the narrative is only a part of the whole; underneath the bright, colourful frames that have an almost child’s picture book joy to them, there is always the distinct feeling of more going on. Who are the chemical-suited figures who drop the container of noxious fluids into Louis’ garden and why must he now use it in his work? Who are his meddling neighbours who spy on him? Just nosy neighbours who like to mess with his life a little or are they part of some larger, hidden mechanisms that rule the odd little homestead where Louis lives? There’s always been a touch of dream logic to Louis books, mixed with an undercurrent that suggests nightmare waters lurk a little deeper than the dream, should you but dive a little further down, in contrast to the child’s book bright imagery. In Night Salad the dream logic is much stronger as the ill Louis goes on his quest during his delirium, part fever dream, part vision quest, even in his sick state his mind desperate to save his little friend.
I won’t spoil the journey and the ending for you, save to say it is wonderfully imaginative, as Louis encounters strange lands and new people who he seeks help from. Sandra’s artwork is always lovely and here she has surpassed herself – some of the scenes, such as Louis setting sail, are simply gorgeous works of comics art, a wonderful child’s vision of a sailing ship for adventure with hints of Hokusai’s Great Wave hinting at the deeper, more troubled waters on which the ship sails (wouldn’t the frame above make a gorgeous print?). The desert town and the underground city with its minarets and colours are fabulous and help to open up the reader to the sheer, child-like pleasure of allowing yourself to sink totally into the world the writer and artist have presented to you, to lose yourself into a magical little realm. I think this is some of Sandra’s loveliest Louis artwork yet, there are pages you find yourself turning back to again and again simply to look at and enjoy. There’s genuine emotion wrung from Louis too – like Charlie Brown he may be a fairly simple looking character, visually, but Sandra and John use their words and little expressions and body language to convey his emotions, especially his terrible fears at the thought of losing FC.
It’s a sweet tale but one with darker undercurrents for the adult reader – a child can enjoy the lovely, colourful graphics and the tale of one friend trying to save another through a magical quest and indeed so can an adult, but to the adult there are subtle little markers of the darker, hidden aspects of Louis’ world. I think perhaps Sandra and John have crafted their best Louis book yet, an utterly gorgeous, colourful, touching fantasy for all ages, with fabulous artwork and colouring and an engaging emotional hook.
And I have to say that the design too is quite lovely – Night Salad is presented in a fine little hardback that sits somewhere between a child’s picture book and a graphic novel in appearance, attractively coloured and with that beautiful art of Louis on his ship, all for under ten pounds – yes, this lovely wee hardback joy comes in at under a tenner. If you are looking for something different, something special and charming for a Christmas present for the reader in your life (or for yourself!) then this has perfect gift written all over it, it’s one of those books that makes you happy just to hold it in your hand – in fact it’s going right into my Best of the Year list.
If you are going to be at Thought Bubble in Leeds this weekend then you can see Sandra and John there and I strongly advise you not only to pick up a copy of Louis but get it signed while you’re there, while art from Night Salad can be seen as part of the That’s Novel exhibition of comics art in the London Print Studio as part of Comica. (NB this review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog in mid November 2010)