House of Clay: Review
Naomi Nowak is a cartoonist resident in Sweden, of Hungarian-Polish ancestry, and presumably works in English, since this book doesn’t credit a translator. She is thus more cosmopolitan than most of us ever dream of being. This is her second graphic novel, after Unholy Kinship (which I haven’t seen).
My first impression is that Nowak must be influenced by P. Craig Russell and by manga – there are a lot of flowing layouts following ideas rather than action, and the delicacy of the figures and the flamboyance of some of the drawing is very reminiscent of Russell. But, given that she’s European, those may or may not be trustworthy comparisons. I can’t be sure what Nowak’s real influences are, but — looking at House of Clay — I do see what looks like a lot of manga and Russell in its DNA.
House of Clay has an atmosphere of unreality about it; Nowak’s style keeps the story from ever feeling completely real — it’s more like a fever dream or a retold legend. This is the story of one young woman, but it’s also a more primal story, an archetype, of all young women everywhere.
Josephine goes to work in what the back cover copy calls a "sweat shop" to earn money to pay for nursing school. (And I think "sweat shop" is some kind of mistake in word choice, because the whole point of a sweat shop is that no one there ever earns enough money to get out of it.) She sews clothes very quickly, under tough working conditions, made worse by the fact that Josephine faints at the sight of blood. (Yes, this will be a hindrance to a career as a nurse; she and her family already knows this.)
She befriends another worker at the "House of Cotton" factory/dormitory (called "House of Clay" by the workers, since it sucks you in and doesn’t let you go) who turns out to be mute, and also meets a crotchety old lady fortune-teller. Parts of the story are dreamlike, but it’s not purely dreamy: the dialogue (there are no captions; no narrative voice) remains grounded and real, while the art makes strange transitions and flows in unlikely directions.
The art, frankly, doesn’t always seem connected to the dialogue and story — perhaps it’s meant to be chronicling Josephine’s inner journey, or her particular way of seeing the world — but it can be quite confusing. The story itself is very straightforward and simple, but the art complicates everything. If one likes the art, it makes the story richer; if one finds the overcomplication annoying, it hides the story behind fripperies. I switched back and forth between those two points of view myself, but I finally came down on the side of liking the art. It’s so flamboyant and alive, so idiosyncratic, that it demands and deserves the reader’s love by the end.
The art never gives the reader a strong sense of place; this story is anchored firmly in Josephine’s head rather than in any mundane location. It’s the most interesting aspect of this graphic novel, and it won’t be for all readers. But it is something new and exciting, and I hope to see more of it.
House of Clay
NBM, 2007, $12.95