Sandcastle: Frederik Peeters, Pierre Oscar Lévy (Trad. Nora Mahony)

Sandcastle

After all the BL and Japanese action around these parts lately, I was starting to turn every scene around me into Japanese romance. Which got really weird when I caught myself shipping the bus driver with the old man freaking out about the detour on the route. Maybe they fight because they love, I mused. Maybe this fight about the detour is really about something deeper, something neither of them could ever say out loud, something they both want more than anything in this world. And this is when I realized I needed to read something in English, far from the world of men who love men for the sake of women.

Fortunately, Sandcastle was right there on the shelf of unread books, waiting for me. I picked it up when I was doing my OFFICIAL INTERPRETER work, but every time I opened it in a casual moment, looking for a quick read while I had a snack before going back to work, the first pages told me that this was not a book for a casual moment. I was going to need to devote my brain to it entirely. So I did. On a rare day off, I sat down on my bright blue sofa and read it from cover to cover. It was an experience I would recommend. All the urgency and panic contained in these pages just has so much more of an impact in a single sitting.

I do wish I had been able to get a copy in French, knowing as I do the sad misses of translation, but the translation here at least reads excellent and flows beautifully as English, so kudos to Nora Mahony for producing a text that sounds like it was always in English. And in a story like this, that uninterrupted flow of natural text is really essential to pulling the reader into the weirdness.

Such weirdness that I actually can’t talk about what I really loved in this book without revealing the story’s central idea. So for the spoiler-averse (although the spoiler I am going to reveal is actually in the publisher’s blurb for the book, so it is not quite a spoiler), here is what I will tell you: Peeter’s gorgeous pen and brush work is reason enough to run out and buy this. The story is weird and totally engaging and heartbreaking and shedding a strange new light on time and the fragility of human existence. Big ideas! The rest of my thoughts are below, for those of you who are okay with knowing a thing or two about the plot. (I promise no story-ruining spoilers.)

The book starts off so sinister and yet the same time innocuous. A black man (this matters to the story, although I am not going to tell you how) camps out in a cave on the rocky hillside of a lake with a beach on the other side. He comes across a white woman skinny dipping and watches for a moment before packing up his gear and walking away. But he looks back longingly, regretfully at her naked body in the water.

 Beach

And then we cut to a family with two young children getting out of the car, excited for a day at the beach. The dad is grumbly, the mom is indulgent, the kids are thoughtless. It’s all pretty normal. Then another family shows up. Their kids are a bit older and there’s a grandmother to shake things up. But everyone’s just there to enjoy the beach. Except for some (happily) never-explained reason, time is all wonky on this beach. A half hour is equivalent to a year. And you can’t leave. People keep trying, but they keep being on the beach. So suddenly, 3-year-old Felix is thirteen. And no one knows what to do about it.

It’s such an oddly simple premise: time goes faster. But with this Peeters and Lévy have created something so moving and complex. What do you do when suddenly the old age you thought was forty years away is going to take over your body in a few hours? In the hands of less talented creators, this could have felt like a cheap gimmick or just fallen flat. But this pair (threesome, including the translator) create something so creepy and frantic that I still can’t stop thinking about it.

Contributing greatly to this is Peeters’ incredible characterizations, his wonderfully expressive art. Because the challenge with a story like this is that you have to depict all these characters growing slightly older in basically every panel. They need to change physically, which is not something you see a lot in comics, and you as the reader need to be able to see a continuity in their faces. And you do. The lines are gradually engraved in the parents’ faces, the kids’ round cheeks shrink down into sharp cheekbones and adult sleekness, but they all have a continuity, like looking at pictures of an old friend at different ages and seeing her in each of them.

sandcastle-28-540x782

And all of these characters are so human, so flawed, so earnest in their own ways. So normal. They react to this strange situation bravely, quietly, with fear, denial, calls to action. The characters react not only to the situation, but obviously also to each other as they slowly realize that they may be ending their lives together. Which doesn’t stop anyone from punching someone else in the face, of course. Because that’s how people are.

2 thoughts on “Sandcastle: Frederik Peeters, Pierre Oscar Lévy (Trad. Nora Mahony)

  1. Oooh finally one review of Frederik Peeters’ graphic novel ^^ . I read it in French (of course) and I found this story very strange and interesting. But god, I don’t want to be in their shoes xD. I love Peeters’ drawing and the atmosphere he creates within his panels. Some strange scenes in the story, as the black guy being chased and murdered😮 we don’t really know the reason of it. The North African character represents a case of very French racism against people from this part of Africa (Morroco, Tunisia, Algeria). You should try Lupus which I found great (plus, you love Scifi :p) and Aâma, which is his current series. Pilules bleues is a very famous one too, more autobiographical and about AIDS. I’m less into that one but Pilules bleues is the graphic novel that made him famous (not sure).

    Have you tried some David B.? He was also one of the guest of the TCAF this year with Peeters. I don’t know lots of his works but his L’ascension du haut mal is very famous. It’s autobiographical too. I did read volume 1 of it at the library (but you know, time flies…). I love his drawing too.

    • I know! Finally! You recommended his work to me months ago, but it’s only now that I’m reading it. I totally agree with you about the atmosphere Peeters creates with his drawing. I love his work in this book and it has definitely made me eager to check out his other work. I will look at Lupus because, yes, you’re right, I do love scifi, but honestly, I think I would read anything by Peeters. I was actually very intrigued by the Algerian character. I thought it was a nice, rather subtle way of bringing the racism against people from that part of the world into the story. And we never find out what exactly he was doing there, which gives a framework to allow you the reader to question the things you might assume upon seeing this man in this situation.

      And I love David B.! At the same time as I got this book, I picked up the English translation of Black Paths, which I am really hoping to read soon. I read L’ascension du haut mal and fell in love with his work. When I got Black Paths, I got him to sign it for me, so it is a precious treasure. I’ll write about it once I read it. Have you read it? (No idea what it’s called in French, sorry!)

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