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A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return

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A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return

Credits

  • Words: Zeina Abirached
  • Art: Zeina Abirached
  • Publisher: Graphic Universe
  • Price: $9.95
  • Release Date: Aug 1, 2012

Stiflingly intense at times and yet still warm, welcoming and, in places, slightly mischievous as well, this is an uplifting story about friendship, a sense of community and the strength of ordinary people in adversity.

Set in Beirut during the height of the civil war in Lebanon, A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return chronicles events in the space of just one eventful night in the 1980s. When her parents don’t return from a trip to the other side of the divided city, young Zeina and her little brother find themselves reliant on the neighbours to construct a sense of security and fellowship in their shared apartment building. As the sound of bombing gets ever nearer the importance of community and the impact of the conflict on the everyday lives of Beirut’s citizens becomes more and more tangible, and the sense of fearful anticipation as to the fate of Zeina’s parents more pronounced…

Writer-artist Zeina Abirached's A Game for Swallows is a war story told from the confines of one apartment’s foyer (the only safe room in the building) where the residents of the block all gather nightly to support each other through the regular ordeal of the approaching explosions outside. With its short timespan, ensemble cast, and claustrophobic central premise A Game for Swallows has something of the air of a stage play to it in narrative construction. The actual conflict itself made all the more ominous because we see so little of it and, like the protagonists themselves ensconced in their communal refuge while the melee rages loudly in the environs without, our imagination is left to fill in the blanks.

By the end of this book you will have been introduced to a cast of memorable characters whose resolute courage and inherent decency in the face of personal tragedies will leave an indelible mark. Amongst others there’s Chucri, the son of the building’s caretaker, whose taxi driver father disappeared without trace after dropping off his last fare a year after the war broke out. The dapper and affable Ernest, who never leaves his apartment since his twin brother died, apart from when he comes down to the foyer to perform great chunks of Cyrano De Bergerac to his neighbours. The elderly Anhala, inadvertently abandoned by the family she had dedicated her life in service to, and the generous Monsieur Khaled and Madame Linda, living on the memories and the salvaged alcohol of their once fashionable restaurant destroyed years ago in the bombardments. Abirached's ability to make the audience feel fully invested in each and every character just panels after their individual introductions is really quite remarkable.

The obvious visual comparison to be made here is to the work of Marjane Satrapi. Artistically Abirached’s work has that same faux naivety to its layouts but like Satrapi it’s a superficial simplicity masking a profound and confident control of the comic strip page. Her striking, sometimes symmetrical, monochromatic art makes use of the deepest and most conspicuous black to create contrast and mood that further emphasises the slightly suffocating and confined atmosphere of the story. She also displays an innate and deft understanding of the unique possibilities of the comic strip form to communicate her ideas – a dissolving map, for example, becomes a far more resonant reflection of a city in turmoil while a depiction of the tortuous path taken to avoid snipers becomes indicative of how potential death is an accepted and routine part of everyday life. Indeed, every page of A Game for Swallows is an arresting piece of graphic design in and of itself.

Stiflingly intense at times and yet still warm, welcoming and, in places, slightly mischievous as well, A Game for Swallows is an uplifting story about friendship, a sense of community and the strength of ordinary people in adversity. Elegantly told and unforgettably visualised, this really is the most human of war stories; a simply unmissable piece of autobiographical graphic novel storytelling.

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