Book Review: Habibi Well Deserves Its Title

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I read a review in an October TIME Magazine of the graphic novel Habibi (Arabic for “my beloved”) by Craig Thompson and was intrigued.  When I walked into the library last Thursday night and saw it there, after not finding any books by Brian Selznick, I decided to bring Habibi home with me.

I’m so glad that I did.

This book is amazing, worthy of every poetic line of praise from TIME’s Douglas Wolk.

Set in the future where pollution poisons the water supply, Habibi’s world has returned to an Arabia replete with the old stories and mythologies, slavery, sultans, harems, and jinns.  The story tracks two runaway slaves, Dodola and Zam, through their youth, then through their maturation into adulthood.  It is a story of loss, reunion, love, belief, the fight for freedom, and the search for identity and for a role in society and for family.

The book is an exploration of sexual identity, femininity, masculinity, humanity, history, the dystopian future to which we as a race are condemning ourselves, religion, the relationships between different religions and races, belief….  It explores the art forms that it indulges: word, storytelling, visual representation, silence and white space—dare I include “magic”?

As a graphic novel for adults, though mature teens might be able to claim it as theirs too, Habibi is heavy with philosophy, theology, sensuality, history, and mythology.  The story might benefit especially any seeking to understanding or struggling with their sexuality.  Among other issues close to the modern heart and mind, Habibi explores too the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity.  Raising questions and offering examples without drawing a conclusion, the religions are handled very well.

Though the artwork in this book is stunning in its complexity, in the merging of text and pattern, for which Islamic art is so famous, and form, the story more so than the art draws me into the tale.  Unlike Brian Selznick’s books, Habibi still pays homage to the comic books and manga from which graphic novels emerged rather than returning to the earlier picture books, as I would argue Selznick seems to do (but then Selznick’s graphic novels are also intended for children while Thompson’s is intended for adults or older teens, and comics and manga are for an older audience than picture books).  Habibi still, though, escapes the static block forms of comic strips, including full-page spreads and creatively shaped containers for the images, such as the eye that highlights Dodola’s eyes by which Zam recognizes her.  In that way, it is almost more creative than Selznick’s books, which mostly seem to contain full-page illustrations, much as many picture books have throughout history.

This is a book that contains a lesson for everyone, I feel.  In reading a number of reviews, as many themes have been most highlighted by each individual reviewer: from the interplay of pictures and words by Wold, to the castration of Zam by Marcus Nyahoe in his intriguingly named Breaking the Fourth Wall blog, and Robyn Creswell of The New York Times claims that it’s “a work of fantasy about being ashamed of one’s fantasies.”

I may have been able to get even more from the book if I were familiar with Arabic, words of which language grace many of the pages.

 *****

Thompson, Craig.  Habibi.  New York: Pantheon-Random, 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Craig Thompson, Pantheon Books, Random House, Inc., TIME Magazine, Time Warner, Inc., The New York Times, or any of the reviewers cited here.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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