Mar 18, 2010

Bourbon Island 1730 by Apollo & Lewis Trondheim

Bourbon Island 1730 by Apollo & Lewis Trondheim

Please bear with me as I try to summarise the plot of Bourbon Island 1730, as it’s not an easy task. It’s not that the story is confusing; it’s just that there are a lot of interrelated events going on at the same time, which makes it difficult to recap. Let me start with a bit of historical context: Bourbon Island, named RĂ©union in our days, is a small island on the Indian Ocean, to the east of Madagascar. The island still belongs to France today. In the eighteenth century, it was a colony occupied by a few white settlers, who owned coffee plantations, and many slaves brought over from Madagascar and East Africa. It was also a frequent point of passage for pirates, many of whom settled on the island and became plantation owners themselves when the King of France issued a Pirate Amnesty.

The story opens when a group of ornithologists arrive in Bourbon Island. They come in search of the last Dodo, and also to catalogue the island's many unique bird species. But they get involved with a group of Maroons – escaped slaves who live in free communities up in the mountains, always in fear that they’ll be recaptured – and also with the daughter of a rich plantation owner, whose eyes are open to the injustice that surrounds her. And more than this I cannot tell you, except that around the same time a famous pirate by the name of Buzzard is captured, and that one of our ornithologists is obsessed with Libertalia – a legendary pirate community that, if real, is said to have been the first modern democratic republic in the world.

I liked Bourbon Island 1730 a lot, but strangely enough it actually took me a long while to realise this. At first, the book left me feeling vaguely uneasy and slightly frustrated. This is because the ending brings no closure, no solutions, no answers, and to be honest, the story doesn’t really go anywhere much. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that actually, the narrative had done its job, which was to make me feel and think. I do, of course, know better than to expect all my narratives to be neat, and I know that sometimes discomfort is a valid goal for a work of art. A book about slavery, colonialism, and the lengths to which human beings will go to be acknowledged as human is going to be uncomfortable almost by. But funnily enough, my initial reaction was still to be somewhat put off. I wonder why that is.

It's interesting how readily I accepted this same kind of discomfort when I read Deogratias a few months ago, yet it still gave me trouble here. Ah well – what is to be human but to be inconsistent? It’s also curious to note that both Bourbon Island 1730 and Deogratias are francophone comics. I wonder if they generally tend to be more open-ended and less structured than English-language ones? I can’t draw conclusions from two books alone, of course, but I’ll keep this in mind as I read more of them in the future. Also, let me take this chance to say that I love that First Second books publishes French comics in translation. France and Belgium have a huge comics tradition that I'd love to explore, but sadly the books are not always available in a language I can read.

But back to Bourbon Island 1730: its greatest strength is that it does a wonderful job of capturing a moment in history and of humanising it – it gives us a glimpse of what it felt like to live through these experiences, and that’s really all I ask of historical fiction. My absolutely favourite scene was one in which one of the maroons speaks to a newly captured slave late one night. They’re both from West Africa and speak the Yoruba language, but as the majority of the slaves in Bourbon Island were brought from East Africa, the maroon hadn’t heard his native language in years – and neither had the slave after being captured.

He tells the newly arrived young man what his life on the island is going to be like, and his account is shown against the backdrop of a coffee plant growing. For the sake of Europeans being served a good cup of coffee, these people’s lives were destroyed. His account is in itself heartbreaking, but more than the details of a slave’s life, what moved me the most was that this is such a human moment in the middle of a system that was heavily based on dehumanisation. The writing and the art together really capture that glimpse of humanity and make it stand out. The result is absolutely stunning.

Bourbon Island 1730
(Click to enlarge)

And speaking of art: the illustrations in Bourbon Island 1730 are quite different from what I’m used to in most of the comics I read. I liked them, but because they’re both in black and white and very detailed, I had to slow down to be able to take it all in. This is more of a warning than a complaint, really. This is a very rewarding book, but it’s not one you’ll want to race through. Also, if you decide to pick it up, make sure you read the historical notes at the end. They were absolutely fascinating and taught me a whole lot about this time period, including a lot of facts about the late days of piracy. And who doesn’t like to learn about pirates?

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  1. I'm still stuck on the idea of such an island out there in the middle of nowhere, and what it is like. Isolated, with unique species of plants and animals, relatively untouched. It seems the perfect setting for a book. With these types of books (ones where you really aren't sure how you feel) it seems like you have to let the whole thing brew in your mind for a few days when you finish, and in the end realize you like it a whole lot better after the fact that in the middle of the thing. Which is curious - that takes a special talent I think.

  2. Firstly, for the graphic illiterate, what is a francophone comic?

    'its greatest strength is that it does a wonderful job of capturing a moment in history and of humanising it – it gives us a glimpse of what it felt like to live through these experiences.'
    This passage was all I asked for in The Quickening Maze. That was all it had to do. Sigh!!!!

    Thirdly, I am absolutely loving the cover.

    Fourthly, I wish dodo's still existed.

    Sorry in a point, by point mood today. Must be all the lists of things to do that I am surrounded by.

  3. I once saw a documetary on dodos and I found it very interesting. Great review, I like the sound of it and I will check it out and probably add to my never ending wish list (which contains over 140 books!!!):)

  4. I didn't know dodos were on this island! I didn't even know about this island. I also didn't realize this was a graphic novel until well into your review :-) I don't know if I just missed something or if the way you described it didn't click, but I love that when you review a GN, I can't always tell that it's a GN.

  5. I've been wanting to read this one ever since Darren reviewed it. I remember he had the same thoughts as you on how it ended. That it just sort of ended with nothing really tied up. And I didn't know if I would really like it or not, but decided to try it and now I'm doubly excited to try it. Anything with dodos and pirates makes me happy ;)

  6. I've never heard of Bourbon Island, but I'm really curious about it after your review.

  7. As Chris mentioned, I had a lot of similar thoughts when I initially finished this one, regarding the lack of anything much actually happening.

    Which is a shame as there was a lot of other things to like about the book.

  8. I've never had the courage to pick up a graphic novel, but this one has really got me interested! I love the style of the drawings, and the plot sounds full of interesting information. I'll be on the lookout for this one!

    from Une Parole

  9. This sounds like super interesting book-I read George Sand's novel Indiana last month that is set in Reunion Island, partially, in the 1840s-great classic-thanks for posting on this book-great review

  10. Sandy: It's it a wonderful setting for a book? I love books set in islands for some reason. And yeah, it took me a whole week to decide how I felt about this one. Like you, I kind of like it when that happens!

    Vivienne: I love your comment in points :D By francophone I meant that it's part of the French-Belgium tradition of comics, and was originally published in French. I don't actually know much about it either, though so it's better stop here :P I wish The Quickening Maze would have done that :(

    Andreea: lol, I don't even dare count how many books there are on mine.

    Aarti: Well - spoilers alert - they were *hoping* for dodos, but alas :P And I wonder if that's a good or a bad thing about how I review GNs. Hmm :P

    Chris: I did like it after having a good long pondering session about it, and I think you might too. And the dodos...I said they were LOOKING for one :P

    Kathy: I confess I hadn't heard of it either! And now I kind of want to go there :P

    Darren: I know what you mean, but in the end I did like it because I felt the goal was to give me a glimpse of a time and a place, you know? It worked really well that way.

    Emidy: Hm, I'm actually not sure if I'd recommend this as an introduction to comics. But, I love that you're considering picking one up!

    Mel: I had no idea Indiana was partially set in Reunion! I've been meaning to read some George Sand, and I think that's where I'm going to start.

  11. Another title to add to my list!

  12. I have to be in the right mood to read one that doesn't have closure for me at the end.

  13. Yes, who doesn't love pirates? Hmm, maybe I should have a pirate month next time....

  14. Gavin, I think you'd enjoy it!

    Kathleen, I know what you mean. I do too - or else I need to wait a whole week for the mood to come and for me to decide I like the book after all :P

    Heidekind: YEAS pirate month please! :D

  15. Argh pirates! Who doesn't like pirates (well you know historical pirates at least)? If you want to learn more about the realities of democratic pirate society (and haven't already read it) I recommend 'If a Pirate I Must Be'.

  16. Pirates are just fascinating aren't they?

    Anyway, the real reason I wanted to comment is that I know exactly what you mean by the inconsistency of humans. Sometimes I just don't understand why one book will leave me all happy and another that is so amazingly similar will make me roll my eyes. I am a big believer that the experience of reading is quite determinant upon the mood of the reader and the book the reader has just read.

  17. Jodie: No, I haven't read that, and it sounds awesome. To the wishlist it goes.

    Trisha, I completely agree. That chemistry or connection or whatever doesn't depend just on the book; it depends on the reader too. And we're so often influenced by mood and other passing circumstances in how we respond to things.

  18. How do you find these books? Pirates, isolated communities, a few philosophical questions.Very interesting. Very, very interesting. Thanks!

  19. It's always interesting to me when a book takes it's time to grow on you. That has happened to me in the past, and it's always a bit unsettling at first. Like Aarti, I didn't know until about halfway through your review that this was a graphic novel. I am not sure if it would be something for me, but I appreciated your insight on it and I am glad that it finally grew on you in the end. Very nice review, it gave me a bit to consider!

  20. ds, I found this one while browsing through the First Second Books catalogue. There aren't many publishers that I trust implicitly, that make me feel that there's a sensibility behind their every release that matches my own. But they're one of the few.

    Zibilee: I still can't decide if what you and Aarti said is a good thing or a bad thing :P


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