The Tale of Brin & Bent & Minno Marylebone

I originally posted this review on the Forbidden Planet blog:

The Tale of Brin & Bent & Minno Marylebone

Ravi Thornton and Andy Hixon

Jonathan Cape

The Tale of Brin & Bent & Minno Marylebone is a hard book to review – not because is disturbing (it is, though), nor because it hard to follow the narrative (it isn’t), but because, although there is a narrative structure here, Ravi’s ravishing words and Andy’s lusciously menacing artwork creates a comic that is more a sensory experience, viewed filtered through the flittering gauze of a dreamworld, than it is simple, linear narrative.

Ostensibly it is the tale of a pair of lost souls, Brin and Bent, different, disturbed, depraved, with inclinations they know mark them out from what is acceptable in society. Trying to control their appetites they meet each other as they look for work, and at first, odd and as off-putting as their shared lifestyle may be, it seems at least they have found what they need in each other, in a shared darkness and depravity (it’s not for the faint-minded or prudish). But when our dark couple get employment at The House For the Grossly Infirm they can’t curb their desires completely, and they are soon enjoying spying on the mentally impaired residents and abusing them in little ways (too much chlorine in the swimming therapy pool), always in ways hidden from the eyes of authority, which in any case, it is clear, cares little for its vulnerable charges, so long as at least a veneer of protocol and respectability is kept.

And it is into this bizarre, depraved, dark sanctum of condemned souls (both the patient inmates and Brin and Bent fall into that description) that a young girl, Minno, enters. Well-named, her name conjures up images of small, darting fish at play in a pond or local river, and this suits this strange, mostly silent child. She crosses the skeletons of homes that never were, an abandoned housing estate, partly built then left (as much a symbol for the decay of the urban dream and fragility of life as it is of the current economy), walking in the dark, lit only by a solitary candle in the night, entering the grounds of the grim, bleak House to sneak in by the rear entrance to the swimming pool, which stands in total contrast to the almost Stalinist era brutal architecture of the main House, being a glorious confection of steel and glass, a miniature Crystal Palace. And to this place comes Minno, secretly, silently, every night, descending into the night-time pool, which is more than a pool to her; the sides of the swimming pool recede and she is adrift in a deep, dark ocean, sinking into a world of wonders, where the darkness is replaced by the glowing light of life. It is perfect, it is beautiful. And you know it is going to be interrupted when Brinn and Bent finally find out about their quiet, nocturnal visitor.

What happens when they find here, I won’t go into, save to say what could have been even more disturbing, upsetting, will move in a very different direction from what you may expect, and the lives of all three will change. How much of this is ‘real’ (a relative term since we are talking about fiction, but you know what I mean) and how much of it is a dream, a fantasy? How much of what we see of Brin and Bent’s shared depravity is really acted out, how much is in their confused heads that aren’t quite wired to socialise and empathise the way they should (and which in some dim way they realise this deficiency and it infuriates them, but they don’t know what they lack, let alone how to obtain it, substituting other, less savoury appetites to fill that needy hunger in its place). How real is this mysterious girl who walks across ruins at night to enter a dream-like glass architecture of a pool that is more than a pool? Even is she is real is how she sees the water real, is she some more-than-human being with expanded perceptions or simply a little girl with a huge imagination who has found her own secret playground?

It really doesn’t matter and frankly I wouldn’t advise questioning it too closely – as I said at the start, this is a graphic novel of experiences, some contrary and confusing, because it is swimming through a dream, and dream logic (albeit perhaps predicated on some real world dark experiences) is the king here. Andy’s artwork is superb – I knew as soon as I first saw the cover that this was going to be a book I wanted to read (and I was delighted that the pair of them agreed to talk to us about the book in a Director’s Commentary guest post – see here). As regular readers know I am a huge animation fan, and one of my favourites is the dark, odd, often disconcerting worlds conjured by the Brothers Quay, and Andy’s artwork reminded me of the Brothers Quay via Dave McKean, deftly weaving a dreamscape that is both nightmarish and disturbing like a David Lynch film and yet also contains some beautifully, magical, light-filled moments. Mostly avoiding the usual flow of comic book panels and speech bubbles, being more like an illustrated text in some places, Ravi’s words accompany this art in perfect partnership, not just her narrative, but an elegant, flowing series of dialogue boxes that guide us through this hidden, nocturnal realm and its lives.

Certainly it is not for everyone, but for me it was a remarkably unusual, fascinating work – it would make a great companion on your shelves to McKean’s Cages and Laurie J Proud’s Peepholes, perhaps, for those of us who often walk the lost highways at night and appreciate the reports of fellow travellers from that odd, sometimes scary, sometimes enchanting country.