When stories don't require words.
Late afternoon yesterday was grey and thick, the perfect atmosphere for hunkering down with Zenobia, Morten Dürr and Lars Horneman’s 2016 graphic novel which has been recently adapted for English audiences and published in Australia by UQP.
Three narratives intertwine as Amina, an orphaned child from Syria, awaits her fate on an overcrowded boat traversing a wide open sea. As events unfold, Amina’s memories drift back to her life in Syria, where the security and warmth of her childhood is slowly engulfed in the broken shadow of war. Amina remembers, too, tales of the warrior princess Zenobia, one-time queen of Syria who commanded an empire of nations. Amina’s memories are drenched in sepia, warm at first and then foreboding, but Zenobia’s story is richly tinted in royal blues and deep red earth. Zenobia’s vibrant courage is a light for Amina to look towards when all other hope is gone.
The graphic novel can be a medium where the import of the illustrations far outweighs that of any text. This is especially true of Zenobia, where the text enhances the work of the story but the art does all the heavy lifting. In fact, the illustrations do the job so powerfully that I know I will be sharing this one with my youngest brother, who has a disability and very limited literacy. He will be able to grasp the depth and the nuance of this book without reading the words and that, I think, is a wonderful thing.
Zenobia’s emotional impact is a heavy one, and may be too much for sensitive young readers. Although it looks respectfully, soberly away from the highest points of tragedy, the silences speak loud in this narrative. What is not shown is just as powerful as what is. Yet the visual impact of this story is never too much. Zenobia’s open spaces, twilit colour palette, and rich visuals are warm in their simplicity and deeply human. They tell of an all-too-recognisable scenario, familiar to us but not always felt, and pull us into the small, personal element of what can otherwise feel too big, too unreachable. This graphic novel is not just a tale; it is also a plea.
Morten Dürr and Lars Horneman
Published October 2018 by UQP Books
Graphic novel, 96 pages