Books & Media
beirut I Remember BeirutI Remember Beirut, Zeina Abirached
Graphic Universe, August 2014
Reviewed from final copy

I’m struggling to remain even semi-impartial here. This is a book that I loved reading. But when I put it on the list, I was pretty sure I was doing it because of personal reasons, not so much because I was ready to nominate and defend it as a contender. And now that I’m writing up this review, well, I’m fairly muddled. AS USUAL.

In this graphic novel, Abirached shares memory fragments from her childhood in Beirut. Most of them are very brief — just a few pages long; within those pages she builds whole stories. Abirached’s thoughtful art choices bring the reader into her story: her family as game pieces on a long and winding board; the thick streams of smoke from people’s cigarettes throughout a panel; the overwhelming crowding of a Beirut traffic jam; the security of a simple backpack. These vignettes add up to an interesting, emotional whole; like the art they are full of texture and weight. The stylized language, with its repetition of “I remember” throughout is mesmerizing and powerful and is a good match for the art.

Abirached mixes the every day and the extraordinary seamlessly; she remembers Flo-Jo’s fingernails, the sound cassette tapes make when you shake them, and blackouts caused by the war. This back-and-forthing, mixing and juxtaposing, makes this short work beautifully complicated and full of emotion. The weight of all the memories, so full of details, makes the final few images of Abirached as an adult separated from her family in 2007 speak volumes: “But I know what they went through in all the texts she didn’t send.”

The quiet moments midway through the story are arresting as well. The white art on a black background is finely drawn (as opposed to the very bold, semi-Persepolis-like art of the main text) and full of comforting images. They’re such a contrast to the rest of the story, so full of solace.

The introduction and map set the scene; they provide enough context for the reader to understand what’s going on. This big picture stuff (where, how, what) is efficiently covered. Unfortunately some of the small details are lacking; the relationship between the characters isn’t always clear. (Is Chucri a neighbor? An uncle? Where did Georges Perec come from!?) While these smaller details don’t affect the emotional impact of the story, they are hard to reconcile as a reader. In a story where so many details are so finely shared, this is distracting.

The small page count and the unexplained relationships may keep this from being a serious contender. Although at the end I found I didn’t need to know each character’s name and their relationship to Abirached in order to appreciate this story about both war and peace. But…maybe I’m just telling myself that because I really (really!) liked this book. I’m sure you all have thoughts — on this type of reading experience AND on this title. Let’s move to the comments!

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