Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Property by Rutu Modan Review


Rutu Modan’s second graphic novel, The Property, is her best book yet and one of the best comics of the year. Mica Segal and her grandmother Regina head from Israel to Warsaw to reclaim family property that was lost in World War 2. But as Mica soon realises, her grandmother has other reasons for returning to her former home that has to do with her grandmother’s recently deceased son, Reuben, and a life left behind long ago.


Modan takes an already interesting story from the beginning and slowly peels away the layers as it goes to reveal an even more startling story underneath, so I don’t want to talk too much about the book’s contents - part of its compelling hold on the reader is the way the story swerves from one direction to a completely different one. There are subtle clues along the way as characters behave strangely though it’s still surprising once we discover what it’s really about and very moving as well.


At the heart of what makes this story so involving are the relationships, especially Mica and Regina’s. There’s a genuine closeness between the two that’s very real, portrayed convincingly by Modan in small scenes like Mica helping her elderly grandmother shower and dress, or the two arguing (mostly because Regina’s overwhelmed by the real reason she’s in Warsaw and can’t tell Mica) and Regina not speaking to Mica, childishly, despite being several decades older (and therefore wiser?). Regina is a sometimes difficult woman to like but she’s multi-faceted, complex and real, as is Mica.


Regina and Roman’s relationship too is maybe the most memorable in the book. Roman is a big part of the real story of the book so I won’t say too much about him but Modan masterfully builds up their scenes together, so that when we reach the story’s end the two have a silent scene with a simple hand gesture that’s so romantic. It’s a rare book that makes me cry but I did shed a tear when I read that and it’s to Modan’s credit that the scene doesn’t come off as overly sentimental or schmaltzy but just sweet.


And while Modan convincingly shows us pre-existing relationships, she’s able to create a new one between Mica and a Polish tour guide called Tomasz who begin a romantic relationship over the course of the week. They meet naturally, they talk naturally, there’s a spark, it develops - it never feels rushed or false and is eminently  human, a remarkably difficult feat to pull off in just over 200 pages. You believe these two people are falling in love and Modan makes it seem so effortless - the mark of a gifted storyteller. The scene where Mica - a very strong female character like Regina - lets her guard down and opens up to Tomasz when she feels her grandmother’s about to die is really beautifully written, all the beats are there.


Modan’s art has improved a lot since Exit Wounds, her first book. Which isn’t to say the art in that book was bad, but comparing the two books, her work in Exit Wounds looks a more stiff than in The Property. And it’s hasn’t even changed all that much here - the figures look similar, the style is still HergĂ©-esque, cartoonish (ie. dots for eyes) but humanistic figures, clear line - but the facial expressions are much more emotive which makes a huge difference, especially in a very emotional book like this. Plus I loved her landscape drawings - when Regina and Roman go to the Fotoplastikon (kind of like a slide-show museum) to look at pictures of Warsaw before the war, there are some utterly gorgeous pictures, one of which, the lake drawing, adorns the interior covers.


I’ve never been to Warsaw but you get a really good sense of it from this book. Not just the streets and exterior architecture but the restaurant inside the flat was strongly atmospheric - you could almost smell the hot potatoes being cooked! - and that scene in cemetery that closes the book on Zaduski was wonderfully colourful despite the drabness of the peoples’ heavy clothes (you can see part of that scene on the cover).


The spectre of World War 2 hovers over the book - it’s the reason why they made the trip, a lot of the Polish characters’ lives revolve around the history of the ghettoes and the Nazis still, and how the war continues to echo through the years, affecting new generations. The opening scene on the plane to Warsaw shows a group of rowdy schoolkids being kids on a school trip, yelling, messing around, and one of the last scenes in the book is the flight back where those same kids are sat quietly in their seats, sat in their seats silently, sad, earnest  expressions on their faces from what they learned of their ancestors’ fate in WW2.

But really this is a book of lost love, of lives lived and lost, of consequences that span a lifetime, of survival, and of the inherent complexity of human relationships. It’s also an amazing story that’ll entertain you from the first page to the last as well as educate and move you in the way only great books can. The Property is a great book and one of the best you’ll read this year - don’t miss it, it’s an absolute treat from a terrific artist and brilliant storyteller. 

The Property

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