Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Gift’

“Nobody knows what made him decide to run for freedom and to certain suicide”

The Gift is a new book by Zoe Maeve, coming to us from Conundrum Press. It’s technically a YA book, but I’m not positive YAs will like this book. Maybe they’re weirder than I think they are!

That being said, it’s not that weird a book. It’s a bit odd, mainly because the plot is so … ethereal? Vague? Secondary? It’s not a non-existent plot – it’s basically the Russian Revolution, which is full of plots! – but Maeve is far more interested in showing how a young girl’s world falls apart without her really knowing why. Anastasia narrates the book, telling us about her birth (in 1901, although Maeve writes that she was born in January when she was born in June) and then, eventually, the birth of her brother, Alexei, the heir to the throne. Of course, Alexei has hemophilia, and he was born just before the 1905 troubles in Russia, so the children are isolated more and more to keep Alexei alive and to shield them from the turmoil in their country. The book skips to Anastasia’s fifteenth birthday, when she receives a camera as a gift. No one knows who gave her the camera, but it becomes a treasured possession. She thinks she sees something or someone moving in the fields around Tsarskoye Selo, the imperial palace where they live, but she can never quite glimpse it. Then, of course, the Communists come for her family, and the book ends with her death.

It’s not exactly an exciting book, and despite the presence of a vague supernatural element, it’s not a creepy book, either. The camera is important, which is why the book is named after it. Maeve is simply examining a world that is passing, a world that is falling apart, but through the eyes of someone who is deliberately kept in the dark, not only about the disintegrating world, but even the world she was expected to live in. So Anastasia seeks solace in the camera by cataloguing her world, and that’s where the tragedy of the book comes from. Anastasia photographs the trappings of ossified power and privilege, and each drawing of the intense parquet (or marble?) floor of the grand rooms in the palace or the ridiculously expensive gifts she receives at her christening or the sumptuous feast she has for her birthday when we know Russians are dying by the millions in the First World War hammers home this point of baroque courtly life in an age of change. If not for the camera, this comic could take place hundreds of years earlier, and that intrusion of modernism jars with the clockwork theater of the imperial household. The eeriness of the book comes from the fact that even in private, the imperial family must play roles, but there’s no longer an audience. They are moving as if by rote, and they miss the cataclysmic changes in their country and the world. Anastasia represents that by her photographs of meaningless things and the fact that, at the end, she has dozens of rolls of film that will never be developed. It’s a sad commentary on people who miss events because they’re too busy trapped in amber. It’s not Anastasia’s fault, and Maeve gives her a semi-happy ending (as much as one can get when one is being shot by Communists). The weird thing in the fields gives her some sense of self-awareness, as she seems to understand the giant shift going on in the world, but no one wants to explain it to her. This is partly because she’s a girl and therefore will not inherit the throne, but also because the Romanovs themselves, including Nicholas II, never seemed to understand the danger of the revolutionaries. This book is an interesting way to tell a story we’ve read before – how the world of the early twentieth century had changed, but those in power hadn’t understood that. The Russian court certainly didn’t.

The theme of the book is highlighted by Maeve’s ice cold blue coloring of the crisp, stark artwork. Maeve isolates everything, from the people to the buildings, beautifully, so even when we get more than one person in a panel, she manages to set them apart and show how they don’t connect to each other. She zooms out to show the vastness of the empty ballroom, where people are dwarfed by history, and even when she focuses on Alexei having fun, it’s in a sparse palace made cold by the Revolution brewing outside. The guards are mostly shown in silhouette or from the back, highlighting their inhuman status – early in the book, they’re meant to keep the peasants out, but later, they’re meant to keep the Romanovs in, and in either case, they’re simply robots doing what their superiors order them to do. Even Anastasia’s parents are shadow forms, rarely seen and hardly involved. When Anastasia does go outside, the world opens up terrifyingly, so that she seems even smaller in this vastness. The way Maeve uses space in this book is very well done, and it makes Anastasia’s final flight into the wild more powerful, and her death more intimate. It becomes a bit supernatural in the end (in an oblique way), as Maeve, who’s been weaving a theme of transformation into the book (not a bad theme in a book vaguely about the death of an empire), shows how Anastasia can transform into something else as well. Perhaps she sees her future in the fields when she glimpses the strange figure? Perhaps. But Maeve doesn’t say, and her art only suggests.

The Gift is an odd and eerie comic, one that rewards thought and contemplation. While Maeve keeps the major events of the time mostly off the page, their effects are still felt, and she’s interested in the impact they have on a teenager, one who doesn’t really understand her place in the world and never gets a chance to discover it. It’s not a long book, and it relies on the art in a lot of places, so while it doesn’t take long to read, it does stick with you and makes you think, which is the goal of art, after all. Everyone knows what happened to the Romanovs, so if that’s the only thing you know about the Russian Revolution, you can still read this and ponder the way the world shifts and what that does to the people left behind.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.