Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Fish + Chocolate by Kate Brown Review

Kate Brown’s Fish + Chocolate collects three darkly dramatic short stories themed around motherhood, specifically single mothers, and their complex relationships with children. The Piper Man is a modern day reworking of the fairy tale, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, as a strange silent man appears and leaves with most of a town’s children, who willingly follow him. The Cherry Tree looks at a musician whose creative ambitions clash with her responsibilities as a mother. Matryoshka is a harrowing sequence where a woman who recently miscarried battles through her grief alone in her flat. 

Each of the stories are gripping in their own way but I think the Pied Piper story was my favourite. It had the feel of a classic British horror movie like The Wicker Man where a seemingly normal neighbourhood and the conflicts between a single mother and her two sons builds to this shocking crescendo that ends abruptly. The Cherry Tree is interesting because it’s got a dreamlike quality to it like some of the more abstract less well-known fairy tales like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Shadow. 

Brown has an excellent grasp of the language of comics made all the more remarkable by this being only her second book. Her gorgeous anime-influenced art style appears fully formed on the page with panels increasing and decreasing in size very naturally to suit the story. She knows when dialogue is necessary and when its absence is more effective and you feel like you’re in the hands of a true visual artist. 

I loved her use of colour in each of the shorts. The Piper story has a violet tone, a colour sometimes associated with imagination; a red tone for the Cherry Tree signifying the passion of the mother for her art and the increased conflict between herself and her daughter (not to mention the prominence of blood and cherries in the story); and a green tone for Matryoshka, a colour associated with renewal for a story ostensibly about a woman healing after the pain of losing her baby. 

Brown’s art is fantastic throughout the book. The scenes become more and more creative with each successive story so that Matryoshka has the most startling imagery. There’s a very graphic visual of the woman giving birth to a pile of blood and maggots (symbolising her expulsion of grief as well as a reminder of her miscarriage?) that might disturb some readers, but otherwise the imagery is very beautiful for such a sad tale. The drowning scene leads to a moment where the character seems to break through the page of the comic itself to signify her own major breakthrough against depression. But given the opaque ending to this story, and the ambiguous finales to the previous two, makes me question whether Matryoshka’s happy ending should be taken at face value or not – did she instead actually drown herself in the bathtub and find peace in death’s oblivion? 

If there’s a critique to be made about Brown’s storytelling style, it’s her lightness of touch with regards the resolutions. This doesn’t apply to Matryoshka as much as the first two which end in ways where you’re left wondering what happened. I’m fine with open-ended, impressionistic endings but they seemed so sudden and peculiar that I wanted a bit more. I wasn’t as unsatisfied as some readers though, and perhaps that was the point – end with a little bit of mysterious, unexplained magic like some fairy tales? 

Magical is the right word for Fish + Chocolate which is a really good collection of original and highly enjoyable stories from a very talented new artist. Kate Brown’s Fish + Chocolate is definitely worth checking out for fans of inspired, unusual comics and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Fish + Chocolate

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