Original graphic novels, much like any good book, is transport for magic. When done well, the reader is privy to an entire world of wonderment, mystery, and discovery. Not every graphic novel can pull this off, but the few that can tend to end up on several best-of lists. Swimming in Darkness is an example of immersive and mesmerizing storytelling. Written and drawn by French cartoonist Lucas Harari with translation by David Homel, this book will not only transport you to a strange place where Swiss architecture may or may not be alive, but it will draw you into a narrative of obsession and existential horror.
This is the kind of book where you should go in as blindly as possible. Told in an oversized, beautifully bound hardcover, the story already feels important and sound as soon as you hold it in your hands. The story focuses on Pierre, an architecture student who is recovering from a breakdown and decides to experience a spa over thermal springs to relax and unwind. Relaxing is the last thing he does however, as he discovers true wonders of a creepy, unhinged kind based on the architecture of the spa by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The spa also happens to be the subject of Pierre’s unfinished thesis, so even when he’s attempting to relax he’s sketching and working.
The art by Harari is incredibly immersive and dynamic. There’s a texture adding a sense of depth and telling its own story between characters and panels that is unmistakable. The story is set in a sleepy mountain town, seemingly surrounded by walls of snow and cold, giving the book an isolated vibe during both day and night. There’s an unease about the locations which sets your own anxiety up a level as Pierre begins to sense something is amiss. Harari draws you into the mystery of the spa, Pierre, and a mysterious man Pierre meets thanks to the calculated panel choices of medium, close up, and establishing shots. The use of color is quite striking; the reds particularly draw your eye. Most colors fall under blue, red, and more monotone colors which helps pull the characters or specific focus to your attention. More than once I found myself marveling at the mise en scene in a shot and how the visuals tell so much of the story.
The mystery in Swimming in Darkness is also quite fascinating. Much is revealed, and there’s certainly something there for fans of superheroes if you give this a chance. At the same time, I found this book unexpectedly thought-provoking, making me want to linger and think about the scene and what Harari was trying to convey. This is as much a mystery of unexplained locations and happenings as much a mystery of Pierre’s understanding of his own identity. It’s in the latter that most will find a connection to the book as his journey is relatable.
The translation by Homel is quite good and the lettering is quite good too. The language and lettering draw you in with a hand-drawn and natural feel.
This is without a doubt one of my favorite reads of the year. Swimming in Darkness is a rich and rewarding experience that is introspective and at times chilling. If pitched to a film studio, they’d call it The Shining meets Days of Heaven. Give this a read — it’s sure to end up on many end-of-year lists. Now, Mr. Harari can we please get a sequel?
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