Wednesday, January 15, 2014

With Only Five Plums

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of With Only Five Plums (self-published / CreateSpace, 2013).

It's always a pleasure when a book turns your expectations and your preconceived notions on their heads. Terry Eisele, the author of a three-volume comic called With Only Five Plums, sent me the three books for review. I was initially charmed by Jonathon Riddle's artwork, but found the pacing in the first half of book one far too slow and deliberate for my preference, but then it proved me quite remarkably wrong.

This is the story of the destruction of the Czechoslovakian town of Lidice during World War Two, as told to Eisele by one of the few survivors, Anna Nesperova. Lidice was wrongly targeted for retaliation in the wake of a political assassination. In 1942, three years after Germany occupied the land, a Nazi officer named Heydrich had been killed by two Czech soldiers acting with support from Great Britain. The reprisals were horrifying: across the region, more than 1300 civilians were killed in response. In Lidice, where it had been wrongly assumed that the soldiers had aid and shelter, all of the men in the town were executed, the children were sent away to be adopted by German families, and the women were sent to a concentration camp to suffer medical experimentation. The town was completely leveled, every structure turned to ash and buried under new soil. When Anna Nesperova finally made her way back to her home after three years in a camp having her bones broken for no good reason, every member of her family was dead and there was nothing left of her village but grass.

Despite the division of the story into three books, it really is one narrative, as revealed to Eisele over the course of four interviews with Mrs. Nesperova in the mid 1990s and considerable attendant research. The first half of the first book is paced quite slowly and deliberately, with very large panels depicting life in Lidice prior to the German occupation in 1939. My own biases came to play here before things fell apart. It's more than merely being used to 2000 AD and its "shot glass of rocket fuel" approach, it's that I genuinely prefer comics to use their space sensibly and not spend time on what feels like endless splash pages and establishing shots. But Riddle caught me off-guard. The leisurely pace used to depict pre-occupation Lidice does not change when the operation to kill Heydrich commences. It doesn't change when the Nazis start rounding up the unfortunate civilians in reprisal. It doesn't change when Mrs. Nesperova, pregnant when she is sent under guard to another city, has her infant baby taken away, never to be seen again. It's a canny choice, forcing readers to give all the intensity the same measure of time and attention as life in the village before things went to hell.

A faster pace isn't what this story needs, anyway. War fiction - particularly juvenile war fiction - is full of exciting events like the assassination of Heydrich, but these things always play out in a vacuum. Eisele, sensibly, doesn't disrupt his biography and history to consider whether it was that critical to kill Heydrich, particularly in view of the extreme reprisals (something that never happens in war fiction anyway). Would the Czech government-in-exile have carried out the attack had they known how Germany would respond? Was Heydrich really that important a target, or just another in a line of brutal, uniformed bureaucrats? These things are outside the scope of the story, as it continues in its hammering depiction of Anna's experience in the camp and eventual liberation. Anna Nesperova passed away in 2006. She was one of only 153 women from the town to survive the massacre.

I was quite taken with Riddle's artwork. Tasked with illustrating some terrible imagery, he does an admirable, unblinking job. I can see the influence of Joe Kubert and George Perez in his figure work. He doesn't really get the opportunities for dynamism or experimentation in this; the story is factual and free from melodrama . The type is the only unfortunate element of the books - bargain-basement fonts that would have been greatly improved by the use of a skilled comics letterer. Despite this quibble, these books tell a gut-punch of a story and tell it very well. Recommended.

An advance copy of these books was provided by the writer for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

No comments: