I’m not quite sure how to approach Hope Larson’s Gray Horses (Oni), which arrives in comic shops today. Conventional critical language doesn’t seem quite right, not because the book is so wildly experimental as to make that approach inadequate, or that it can’t withstand that kind of scrutiny.
The difficulty reminds me of high-school English class, of all things. The constant, structured hunt for symbolism and meaning seemed designed to make students never want to read a book again, at least not for pleasure. And if a book did resonate, the sensation had usually faded by the time the final essays had been handed back. There didn’t seem to be any space to actually feel anything about the books.
And Larson’s work deserves so much better than the kind of critique I usually crank out. Gray Horses seems less like a graphic novel than a confidence between friends. It’s a soothing, generous experience that I think will vary greatly from reader to reader. It’s got its own voice, but it also invites readers to chime in with their own.
Larson has a wonderful way of communicating a sensory experience – the smell of lilacs, the warmth of sunlight on skin, or the lulling rumble of a train. She’s also gifted at showing how those sensations interact with emotion and memory. Waking moments can take on a dreamlike feel, while the portrayal of actual dreams can have an unexpected clarity and urgency.
When the protagonist, exchange student Noémie, dozes on a train, I’m in the moment, but I’m also remembering similar instances from my own life when I was exploring someplace new. When she calls an old boyfriend in the wee hours of the morning, it’s recognizably wistful and awkward, as the words curve and tangle across the page. It’s all so different but so familiar, like déjà vu rendered in black, white, and tan.
I feel kind of badly for the person who had to write the back-cover text, because Gray Horses seems impossible to summarize in a paragraph, or at all. I’d have been tempted to say, “Just read it. Trust me.”
Because no matter what I say about it, I don’t think any other reader will have precisely the same response. Larson seems to have met me exactly halfway, leaving warm and comfortable room for my own thoughts, feelings, and memories. And that’s a wonderful thing to be able to say about a graphic novel.
(These comments are based on a preview copy from Oni Press that arrived last night, roughly 24 hours before I’ll pick up the copy that I pre-ordered through the comic shop. That means I have one to give away, so watch for a mini-contest in the next couple of days.)