Sarah Glidden’s new book Rolling Blackouts is currently enjoying plenty of media coverage. This is not surprising - it’s a big book on a serious subject with a multi-layered narrative. Glidden used Kickstarter to raise funds for a two-month trip to Turkey, Iraq and Syria in 2010, and the book is written from the recordings she made there accompanying two journalist friends as they attempted to find stories about refugees in the Middle East. Also in the party was Dan, a veteran of the Iraq war who had fought in the American invasion. The book is about the plight of refugees, but also the role and function of journalism, a subject Glidden reflects on as she observes her friends.
The four travelling companions make for an interesting group dynamic. The two journalists observe, trying to find stories they can sell, which will pay for the trip and allow them to produce less commercial pieces of their own, clearly where their hearts lie. The cartoonist observes the observers, not exactly detached but trying very hard not to influence events, frequently musing on how she feels the trip is going for her friends. The ex-soldier (a childhood friend of one of the journalists) steadfastly refuses to have the sort of experiences that would make a good story, and this causes tension within the group. He’s very keen to let Iraqi Kurds know he fought there, but initially much less keen to share this with Arabs, and there’s a strong sense of a search for transformation that does not come easily.
The art is painted in Glidden’s soft, gentle and non-threatening watercolours, a very good match for the subject-focused, non-confrontational style of the book. This is a far from as polemic as it could be, doubly distanced from the places they visit and the people they meet by the cartoonist observing the journalist format. Near the end there’s a mention of the ’show, don’t tell’ mantra of journalists, and it's one Glidden herself applies.
The fact that Syria has collapsed so heartbreakingly in the years it has taken Glidden to draw and paint these 300-odd pages adds an extra layer of poignancy to a book already filled with tragedy observed and recounted. The country functions as a kind of sanctuary for refugees in the story, an irony the reader cannot fail to note. In the final section she wonders if the change makes her book less valuable. In many ways the opposite is true - she provides a snapshot of a time that has passed. This is a thoughtful book that leaves us to make our own minds up rather than presenting a simplistic viewpoint, fully deserving the attention bestowed upon it.