I first heard about this graphic novel by Jeff Lemire last December at the Pop Culture Happy Hour live show. Glen Weldon named it as his favorite book of the year, describing it as a science fiction time-travel romance. OK, yeah, I’ll try that.
The story begins in the year 3797. Almost all humans have been wiped out by a sentient plague known as the Caul. Dr. Nika Tensmith is trying to communicate with an alien species about the Trillium flower that grows on their planet and seems to hold the key to a vaccine against the Caul. She’s making progress, but time is running out. Only 4,000 humans remain, and the Caul has reached one of the last human colonies.
As Nika continues trying to communicate with the aliens, they make her eat a Trillium flower and lead her into a building that looks like a Incan temple. Soon, Nika finds herself in a jungle, face-to-face with a human man who speaks a language she cannot understand.
The man is William, an English soldier still suffering flashbacks from the Great War. Now, in 1921, he has traveled to South America to find some secret leaves that, when chewed, are said to bring health, happiness, and power over death. William is as flummoxed by Nika as she is by him, and they spend the rest of the book trying to understand their connection.
This book, originally published as eight single issues, is ingeniously put together. Lemire uses his art to twine the two timelines together. Visual cues echo each other in the two timelines. At some points, the panels are inverted to show one timeline when the book is held right side up and another upside down. This visual echoes in this section (I believe a single issue of the comic) are especially stunning.
The story itself is engaging—engaging enough to hold my attention for the time it takes to read a short graphic novel, anyway. A lot of my attention, however, was focused on marveling at the cleverness of the structure. I didn’t form much of an attachment to the characters, and I really didn’t buy the romance. Toward the end of the book, Nika notes that they’ve only spent a few hours together. I kept expecting the timeline to offer more of a history that they’re unaware of, and it sort of does, but not enough to convince me.
The other thing that kept this from being quite as good as I’d hoped is the fact that I just didn’t really care for the art. I can see that it’s very skillfully done, with lots of attention to visual detail and demands of the story. But there’s a chiseled gauntness to the characters’ faces that I found unpleasant to look at, even when the characters weren’t meant to look sickly. There are some single images that I found arresting, but the overall look of this book didn’t appeal to me.
I read most of my comics digitally these days through Comixology subscriptions (currently subscribed to Ms Marvel, Hawkeye, and Fables), but this is a self-contained story, so I got it from the library instead. If you decide to read it, I recommend seeking out a print copy. I don’t think the construction of the panels and the way they relate to each other will come across nearly as well digitally. That aspect of the book is what really impressed me, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it much at all if I hadn’t experienced it on paper.