Rutu Modan hits "a new high" in The Property: SLJ

“Advanced Review: The Property” / School Library Journal / Angela Carstensen / March 20, 2013

Coding How We Speak Family Secrets

Rutu Modan has proved to be an adept storyteller as well as creator of visually rich images of both characters and their settings. She’s been published to some acclaim in the US as the author and cartoonist of a collection of short stories (Jamiliti and Other Stories) and an early reader graphic novel (Maya Makes a Mess) as well as her first solely authored and drawn adult graphic novel (Exit Wounds, also teen friendly). In The Property, however, the very language—or choices of languages—elevates the evidence of her craft and insight to a new high.

Using typefaces to distinguish among the Hebrew, Polish, and English spoken by various characters at different and telling points in the story is just one element in this linguistic exposure of characters keeping and divulging secrets. Because neither Russian nor Ukrainian is understood by either of the main characters—a young Israeli woman travelling in Warsaw with her elderly emigrée grandmother—when others speak either of these, scribbled lines appear in their speech balloons and the reader is as reliant on secondary characters’ translations as are Mica and her grandmother.

Modan utilizes yet another layer of language as well to impart interactions, relationships, and secrets her cast attempt to keep from each other. While sequential art well done utilizes postures, expressions, and spatial distances to convey trenchant information, and she of course employs all eloquently in her clear line work, by making the stranger who tries to befriend and woo Mica a cartoonist himself, we—and she—become privy to how he feels about her from his sketchbook. Thus, visual language becomes another means of communication—and the revelation of secrets—between characters as well as between author and reader of the novel.

Modan’s use of text is almost exclusively reserved for dialog, with the exceptions urban exterior signs and onomatopoeia employed to mark such environmental sounds a character’s gesture would elicit (the click of a lock, the thumping of fists on a door, etc.). A mark of the refined level of her work is that the reader never feels uninformed or that the characters are speaking unnaturally in order to convey information not handled by the visual component.

Beyond all this, the story itself calls on the reader to speak, to converse, to share responses and experiences with family secrets. The “multilingual” nature of the narrative invites the book’s introduction to teens for whom English is an additional way of communicating beyond their native tongue. And while political history, social norms past and present, and religious components of strife all find depiction here, ultimately it is the effect of one and another family secret—a universal experience—that rings through in every language Modan employs in this story.

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