This review was originally published by Fat Quarter on 4 October 2010.
Judith Vanistendael’s graphic novel Dance by the Light of the Moontells the story of a romance between a Belgian student and a Togolese political refugee. First published in Amsterdam in 2007, this “semi-autobiographical” work was first conceived as a response to the short story, Message from the Fortress, written by the author’s own father.
Set in 1990s Belgium, the book traces the relationship between Sophie and Abou, from their meeting at an asylum centre, through their struggles with immigration law and post-traumatic stress, a visit to Togo and to their marriage. The book then rejoins them – years later – in its concluding pages. Vanistendael splits the story into two sections: the first sees events unfolding from the initially concerned, but ultimately supportive, perspective of Sophie’s father and the second is the story as recounted by an older Sophie to her own daughter.
Dance is at once a personal memoir of a young love affair, the author’s attempt to reclaim the narrative of this affair from her father, and a means of drawing attention to the wider issues of asylum-seeking, trauma and racism, including a few pages’ worth of info in the back of the book. The section told from Sophie’s father’s point of view – where Abou’s African facial features are crudely exaggerated – feels uncomfortable, but Sophie’s father’s struggle to come to terms with his daughter’s romance is a way to explore European attitudes to asylum seekers.
As with all good graphic novels, Dance almost instantly sucks you into the world inside its thick black frames, drawing you through its pages until you find you’ve read the whole thing in one tea-fuelled sitting. The English edition is printed in a satisfyingly chunky A5 format, with a striking red, yellow, black and white cover and Vanistendael’s monochrome pen and ink drawings are expressive and distinctive.
The book is undoubtedly engaging, and raises some important issues in a personal way. The only sticking point is that, while we learn a little about the character of Abou, the story focuses largely on Sophie. At times her young, idealistic, but somewhat naive and self-righteous character can be a bit cloying. As the author created the story to fill in the gaps left by her father’s narrative it would be interesting to hear the story that the man represented by the character of Abou also has to tell.