Zenobia

written by Morten Dűrr 

illustrated by Lars Horneman

reviewed by Mia Macrossan

This stunning graphic novel is remarkable for its cinematic treatment of a sensitive topic. It tells the story of a refugee through minimal text and many wordless images, conveying a wealth of meaning and emotion that lingers long in the reader’s mind.

The book opens with a long-distance view of a boat, small and crowded in a huge beautiful but empty ocean. Then a middle-distance view shows us that the boat is crowded with refugees and then follows a closeup of Amina, a young girl, sitting not isolated but alone in this crowd of desperate people. The huge wave that swamps the boat is again shown long shot, middle shot and close -up of Amina as she falls into the water. The spacing of the pictures makes the whole event happen in slow motion and it is not until she is in the water that the first text appears, ‘It is big and empty here’. The next two pages are in stunning contrast – one the young girl under the cool blue water, the other the ochre tones of her home that now flood her mind.

Amina used to live in Syria but when her parents disappear her uncle comes to her rescue. Together they walk through a desolate war-torn landscape until he manages to buy a place for Amina on a crowded refugee boat.  Amina keeps up her courage by remembering Zenobia, the famous warrior queen of old, who defeated the Romans and carved out a huge territory for her people. The flashbacks of her life in Syria show a country desolate and destroyed. A particularly poignant scene shows Amina and her uncle asleep on the ground, surrounded by rubble and a stray dog also sleeping. But the most memorable image is the final one of Amina. This is not a story with a happy ending but one that brings home to the reader the pain and cost of war.

Morten Dűrr is Danish writer who  has used carefully chosen text for maximum impact. Lars Horneman is a Danish illustrator whose careful illustrations are uncluttered, spare but beautiful. The pacing of the events in the story means that the reader is totally immersed in Amina’s world, which is one of stark contrasts. The barren desert of ruins and rubble that is Syria is nevertheless the home of her family and the place of happy memories is juxtaposed with the ocean,  the vast impersonal unresponsive world that is an unspoken comment on how we treat refugees.

Zenobia was the winner of the 2017 Danish National Illustration Award and an IBBY award for illustration.

University of Queensland Press 2018  Graphic Novel 96 pages Age 10 + $19.95 ISBN 978 0 7022 6025 4

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