Tuesday 28 June 2011

"Did you understand what I said?'

A Taste Of Chlorine 
by Bastien Vivès

Whenever reading graphic fiction (or indeed graphic non-fiction) I am often looking to see how each book justifies its form. What I mean by that is to ask each time, 'Why is this a graphic novel?' I do the same thing when I read pretty much anything to be honest, is this really a novel or would it be better as a film, is this actually a theatrical monologue etc etc. I think I'm particularly harsh on graphic work to see whether there really is any point in differentiating between 'comics' and any of the other more elitist descriptions of graphic work. Occasionally however you do read a book that couldn't possibly work as well in any other medium and A Taste Of Chlorine is such a book.

A teenage boy who suffers from curvature of the spine is instructed by his chiropractor to start swimming. Whilst at his local pool he meets a girl who helps him with his technique. He slowly grows in confidence not just with his stroke but also with her, their weekly meetings providing a friendship of little conversations but mainly companionship. One day she mouths something to him underwater, but what is it she says? We will never find out and it is just one of the things about this enigmatic book that makes it so charming. There is actually very little text in total, this is a book of gesture and movement, where the body is the main form of communication. Vives' artwork is beautiful in its specificity. Facial expressions speak volumes, our hero is bashful, disappointed, hopeful, distraught, determined; the girl masked behind goggles one minute, open eyed and beautiful the next, so confident in her body that her mere presence and proximity is a threat to the boy and a powerful sexual potential too.

Vivès also creates a brilliant rendering of his underwater environment too, changing the tones and detail to give a real sense of the change in environment and somehow managing to recreate the silence of the underwater realm too. This is important of course for that moment of secret communication I mentioned earlier but also because the very act of swimming, and of swimming underwater in particular, is going to become a very important part of the book's impact. Imagine that moment when you set yourself a task in the pool. Perhaps it was swimming your first length, holding your breath for a minute, or completing a whole length underwater. Remember the lung-bursting final moments when you thought you might not make it but pushed on through sheer force of will? Now you're getting a sense of what it feels like to read this book, and of what it feels like to reach out for something you really want.

This is one of those books that I want to say lots about in order to convince you to read it but find myself  rendered slightly speechless by its simplicity, its beauty and its sheer ability to move the reader. It is easily the best graphic novel I have read this year and for quite some time. A bit like reading a perfectly honed short story or novella. I can't imagine a person who wouldn't find their life enriched by reading it. Maybe that's all I need to say.


Max Cairnduff 28 June 2011 at 13:57  

Beautiful art.

To be honest, I use the term graphic novel but I prefer the term comic. I don't see anything wrong with reading comics.

If I had to draw a distinction it would be that comics tend to be episodic (typically monthly but not always) while graphic novels are conceived of as closed works always designed to be printed in bound form. That's a bit artificial though.

Still, regardless of categorisation I'll look for this next time I'm in Gosh! Thanks for the tip.

Is it originally in French? It feels like it come out of the French tradition (whatever that is, sounds good though).

William Rycroft 29 June 2011 at 10:12  

Hi Max. There's a (small) translator's credit so it must have been written originally in French. This raises an interesting question about the enigmatic moment underwater that I mention in the review. We see the girl mouthing something underwater and it might be up to us to decipher/interpret what it is she says. However, are the mouth shapes in French or have those panels themselves been 'translated' into English? Strangely there is a page at the end of the book (after the story has finished) which contains panels of her underwater forming different mouth shapes. Are these rejects, drafts, other possibilities....the mystery continues.

Ronak M Soni 5 July 2011 at 19:14  

"If I had to draw a distinction it would be that comics tend to be episodic (typically monthly but not always) while graphic novels are conceived of as closed works always designed to be printed in bound form."

I know you disavow your classification, but the point to be made anyway: even closed works aren't always better read as novels. Watchmen or Kick-Ass, for example, are best read as mini-series, even though they were written with a specific number of issues in mind.

Ronak M Soni 5 July 2011 at 19:17  

And I can't find this in English. French copies abound and usurp. Which is (obviously) sad.

Anyway, how long is it? Sounds very short from your description, as in ten or twelve pages.

William Rycroft 5 July 2011 at 22:08  

Hi Ronak. Here's a link to The Book Depository page for the English version:


They have free worldwide delivery too. The book is officially 144 pages which sounds long but you know how it is with graphic work and with this book containing so little speech it feels much shorter. My advice is not to rush through it though, the movement is beautifully observed.

Christian Dunham 14 July 2011 at 21:36  

I spotted this in a delivery at work and smuggled it home to read. I don't read a lot of graphic novels but this has really knocked me off me feet. A real kick in the heart.
I wonder how long he spent getting those different shades of blue just so; I'm imagining they were laboured over just because they come together so effortlessly. Like you say, the art is incredible. Just a few simple lines map out the gulf between his awkwardness and her sleekness and grace.
I hadn't made the connection between it being a translated work and the mouth shapes but you've set me to wondering now. Has a slight feel of the Bill Murray whisper in Lost In Translation.
Those final panels are intriguing, though I prefer the thought that they are a hint towards a more positive epilogue. Otherwise it makes me want to bawl my damn eyes out.

William Rycroft 18 July 2011 at 08:25  

Thank you for the comment Christian. It's a wonderful book isn't it, definitely worth stealing, I mean borrowing, from work! Your idea of those final panels being an epilogue is indeed a soothing tonic. I hadn't thought of that but I like it. Otherwise, as you say....*reaches for tissue*

Lee Monks 8 February 2012 at 08:51  

First of all, thank you for drawing this to attention. First I'd heard of it (which is ridiculous, really).

Secondly, I agree with everything you say. The odd - and wonderful - thing about it, to touch on one of your points on this, is that one of its strengths lies in its ingenious playing with graphic novel conventions, and getting serious emotional voltage from one might be termed a form's weaknesses. At the risk of running off on a pointless waffle: the opacity that one can find in stuff like this is used brilliantly; the smudgy uncertainties of another, lesser work are here the hazy, tantalising confoundments of perception and visual communication.

Brilliant panels like the one where our hero wanders onto the balcony, desperate to see the girl but desperate not to get carried away: and you have a wide shot of the pool that you find yourself nervously scanning for confirmation that she's there...and then the zoom shot of her arm aloft. And it's a magical moment among many. It's a work that poignantly plays with the space between images. A grand piece of work.

William Rycroft 8 February 2012 at 10:10  

Waffle away Lee, it's all music to my ears. So pleased that you liked this as much as I did. I think it's a really special book and everyone I've forced to read it has agreed (well, only one wasn't convinced but he's just wrong and I shall turn him around!).

As you say, it turns possible weaknesses of the form into a strength and for my money makes a claim to be taken as seriously as anything you might have found on the prize shortlists in the last year.

He has a new book due later this year. I am both very excited and very apprehensive. Can it possibly match up to this one...?

Lee Monks 8 February 2012 at 11:17  

Well, I'll certainly urge as many as I can to read it. It's a thing of beauty. (Another scene that stops you in your tracks a little in wonderment at the guile and clever subversions of 'limitations' is the one in which our valiant swimmer is doing a spot of backstroke: we see slightly altered variations on the ceiling, which, from nonedescript blank panelling is cast anew as a) a cute little orientation device, b) an ingenious means of vicariousness and c) a jab in the ribs to those complacent enough to think that lines on paper can't be thrilling. And then the unmistakable hint of someone's head nudges into frame...

You can see I could easily get carried away here, William. See what you've done! Thanks again!

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