All sorts of books are called “graphic novels” these days, but Gast, by Carol Swain, is one of the few that really reads like one. It is graphic (meaning visual) in a personal and purposeful way. And it is novel (meaning literate) in an intelligent and intentional way.
The story: Helen has just moved from the city to the Welsh countryside from London with her somewhat emotionally distant parents who sit inside while Helen roves the countryside looking hard at her new surroundings and detailing her observations. There are no other children in her life, so she makes friends with some local animals with whom she can converse in a matter of fact fashion.
Helen’s closest companion is her journal – she writes and draws (just like Swain) to untangle the mysteries of this new world and create some kind of sense out of the unfamiliar landscape. The animals provide the clues but their frame of reference is limited to the observable facts that guide their actions. The dogs care about smells and herding. The birds care about perching. The old ram, about just doing his job. The dogs teach Helen that a gast is Welsh for a female canine. Gender identity is fundamental to the animals navigational system and the reader slowly learns that gender identity is also a core issue for Gast.
On the back cover of the book, Time Out blurbs that Swain is “the Raymond Carver of British comics,” so you know you are dealing with something literary here as soon as you pick up the book. Gast does what good literary fiction does, it transports you to a specific location, introduces you to specific characters, and takes you to unexpected and very satisfying conclusions…and it does so with spare text and precise pictures. Swain is a keen observer and a stringent editor; every panel is intentionally composed and framed, every word balloon lean and to the point. But the effect is the opposite of being left with a sparse, cold, shorthand. Her charcoal and ink drawing is lush and textured. In paring down the exposition, the reader is asked to work a bit harder than in the typical graphic novel, and that extra bit of work is part of the pleasure of reading Gast.
Comics can be simple and designed to be read fast. Think of manga. Few cartoonists ask as much of the reader as Swain, but few provide as many rewards to readers who don’t just passively turn the pages but who slow down and read carefully.
This is not to say that this book is a slog. Just the opposite. Swain’s panels are easy to digest and handsomely rendered. My first reading of Gast went too fast. I had to take a second (and even a third) more thoughtful stroll through it to pick up on fully visible minor notes that I had breezed by to get the full impact.
And what an impact!
Helen is eleven. As the story opens there have been some big changes in her life. Everyone who has been eleven can recall understanding at that age that big changes are right around the corner. Swain captures that understanding (more like an informed feeling) that life at age eleven is much bigger than experienced to date, and more mysterious. And yet, if you are a smart and observant girl like Helen, if you take risks, and take notes, all will be revealed.
With her notebook and pencil stub, Helen is a detective. What begins as overall curiosity soon becomes something more focused and purposeful. She is out to understand the mysterious death of her closest neighbor, a farmer name Emrys. The first time she hears about Emrys from the man who delivers eggs, Emrys is described as a “rare bird.” Hence, Helen mistakenly initially believes that Emrys was an animal. She is not incorrect.
In Gast, we are all animals. We all have our jobs to do, our roles to play. There are societal expectations we must live up to based on status, heritage, and, perhaps most importantly in this book, gender. Some of us herd sheep, some of us are sheep. Sometimes, like the old ram, we outlive those roles, and sometimes, like the tragic man, already dead when the book opens, we never fit those roles to begin with.
Gast is a wonderful piece of work, Carol Swain is the real deal, and Gast is required reading.