It’s an easy read but not easily read.
I am constantly amazed at the power of the graphic novel.
Not all perfect endings are perfectly happy.
These are the immediate lines that spring into my mind when I roll over the experience of reading Craig Thompson’s Habibi. I haven’t even allowed myself a great deal of time to thoroughly digest the book and I literally put the book down only minutes ago—but I am moved to write about it right now. In truth, I’ve been writing this review all week as I’ve been stealing and squirreling bits of times to absorb this amazing work (as time to read is not a great luxury when raising two children, the eldest being 2). I’ve made several Facebook posts about it. This book is amazing without qualification.
The presentation of the book is eye capturing to begin with—it is a hardcover leather bound book with gold inlays and beautiful Arabic inlays and geometric designs with an amulet of the main characters Dodola and Zam in the middle. Thompson weaves a love story that transcends romance, redefines family, and actually makes you reconsider the entire concept in a story told in a mostly timeless setting with only occasional flairs of the modern world.
The devices used to tell this story involve story-within-a-story from (mostly) the protagonist, Dodola—who starts as a young girl sold into marriage to scribe and grows into a woman with a story that defies summary (and I won’t summarize it either because you should certainly go read this book in a spoiler free experience). In the course of her tumultuous life she comes to rescue a black baby who becomes known as Zam while both were enslaved. Through the course of the story Dodola, and later Zam, recount stories of Arabian mythology and of the Qu’ran as they relate to their current predicaments.
There is also a lot of time spent exploring Muslim and Arabian numerology and mysticism—which resonated deeply with me along with the Qu’ran stories as they are closely related to Kabalah and the biblical stories of my Jewish upbringing—explaining the divine nature of the letters and numbers and their power to protect and heal.
The characters in Habibi are complex and make difficult decisions in situations that often seem to have no positive outcome. There are moments in the story that are truly heart-wrenching and force you to take pause, consider the turns that are being made, the circumstances presented, and make you question your own morality and preconceptions; which brings us to my first postulate: Habibi is an easy read but is not easily read. Had I the luxury for unadulterated reading time I could have knocked this book out in a single sitting. It is an absorbing story that hooks you from the jump—which I know is trite to say but its 100% accurate. However, that is not to say that it is a 3 panel strip of Blondie—like any work of literary value this is a story of consequence which is best described as an experience; a voyeuristic intrusion into the lives of the characters that affects your mind forevermore.
The complexity of the story is told in black and white renderings that are at once artful and raw; realistic and fantastical; mesmerizing and thought-provoking. There are times when the scenes are immensily detailed and others where they are open, airy, sparse; the story is designed to accommodate varying levels of reality while remaining consistent stylistically. Interwoven with these images are intricate geometric “magic squares” and wonderful Arabic calligraphy that grounds the often-times maligned Arabic traditions as a true cousin to my own traditions—though even an outsider viewing these concepts as totally “foreign” could easily find the beauty and majesty in the concepts as presented.
This should not discount the emotion that Thompson masterfully captures panel after panel. The expressions on the faces of his character speaks volumes more than prose ever could and add life and dimension to even the casts most minor members (a short joke to the flatulent dwarf in the Sultan’s palace). The art itself, in combination with the words create for an emotional experience as well as an intellectual one in ways that I did not expect. I am constantly amazed at the power of the graphic novel.
The story is fantastically paced and finds its climax and draws its close in a way that is not at all predictable at the height of its turmoil—though it is not forced. In fact, Thompson has carefully crafted his work to make a surprising yet absolutely perfect ending that does not patronize its reader with magic wands and fairy godmothers. As the story winds down certain pieces of the ending become apparent and clear—revealed rather than predicted—it is thoroughly satisfying without pandering to the need for all to be right again in the universe. It spoils nothing to say that this story serves as a brilliant reminder that not all perfect endings are perfectly happy, the world doesn’t make everything alright just because you struggle, and love is powerful but not all-powerful.
I have always been a strong advocate for the literary importance of graphic novels and comic books/strips and Craig Thompson proves me right with Habibi. Furthermore, as this is his most recent work it has inspired me to look into what seems to be his landmark work, Blankets. I would be incredibly disappointed if this book does not receive its due recognition across as many awards ceremonies as possible—it is especially worthy of an Eisner and should be considered for all manner of literary recognition. The book is worth the time of any advocate of the medium, any bibliophile interested in thoroughly timeless and incredibly modern work, and anyone who likes to be challenged in their escapism.