From the stack: Three Shadows

April 15, 2008

You can’t say you weren’t warned. Cyril Pedrosa’s Three Shadows (First Second) opens with a beautifully sad poem by Deborah Garrison, and the creator’s biography announces that the book was “born out of the agony of watching his close friends’ child die very young.” It’s a bit of an over-preparation, as Pedrosa frames that tragedy as a parable and illustrates it in a friendly, fanciful style.

He also avoids some pitfalls common to both the material and his approach to it. The central message of this kind of story – that the death of a child is hard to accept – is so obvious that it doesn’t even need to be argued. How, then, do you move your audience beyond simply prodding their shared anxieties and commonly held values? And when you dress that tragedy as a fable, how do you avoid flattening the experience even further?

Pedrosa manages by giving specificity to the family’s dynamic. They aren’t just Father, Mother, and Child. Louis, Lise and Joachim have routines and private jokes, and Pedrosa gives their life on a farm in the countryside easy, believable warmth. I liked them individually and as a unit before I was drawn into their misfortunes. That makes a difference, though the effect is more fleeting than it should be.

Anyway, the plot: one day, Joachim sees three shadowy riders on the hill near their house. They fill him with anxiety that transfers to his parents as the shadows appear again and again. Louis goes into defense mode, and Lise tries to find out why the shadows have come. When she learns the answer, the parents experience a philosophical divide. Lise would like to cherish whatever time Joachim has left, but Louis panics and tries to take his son into hiding.

That argument – mournful acceptance versus a likely futile fight against the inevitable – could have made for a fascinating comic all on its own. I’m not sure that the book benefits from Pedrosa’s choice to focus on the father’s resistance. It marginalizes Lise, and it’s impossible to not resent Louis for robbing her of the scant time she has left with her son. Pedrosa is clearly conscious of that result, but I’m never fully persuaded that Louis did what he had to do or that the sequences that follow are sufficient compensation for Lise’s absence from the narrative.

When the book takes that turn, Louis’s struggle becomes a sort of ambient backdrop for treachery and disaster that never fully connect with the more compelling themes that Pedrosa established earlier. These sequences are beautifully drawn, and they have emotional punch, but they didn’t cohere into a whole story for me. Pedrosa is a marvelously skilled illustrator and a potent storyteller moment to moment; no chapter of Three Shadows is anything close to a waste of time, but the last half of the book never becomes the transforming quest that seemed to have been intended. It just confirms that Lise was right all along, but it never rewards her for that.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)