review by Paul
FIVE WOUNDS, An Illuminated Novel
written by Jonathan Walker
illustrated by Dan Hallett
published by Allen & Unwin
If book covers were still made with tooled leather, embossed and edged with gold leaf, and secured with a bronze clasp, then Five Wounds, An Illuminated Novel, written by Jonathan Walker and illustrated by Dan Hallett, would have such a cover. Nonetheless, and with due credit to publisher Allen & Unwin, this is a book with an armorial binding of sorts – five heraldic emblems on the backstrip – richly illustrated endpapers, a midsection of quality plates on a vellum finish, coloured headers, a red ribbon page-marker, and... and all this without reading a word. Skipping a few pages to the dedication (“To whom it may concern”), I felt sure I was in for a treat, for here was an illuminated novel – something more lavish than a graphic novel perhaps – that promised both adventure and playfulness.
The playfulness of Five Wounds lies partly in the pleasure of tracing parallels, contrasts and connections between the five main characters – Cur, Crow, Magpie, Cuckoo and Gabriella – who are all damaged, wounded, incomplete and searching for their own resolution. Although it took me until the end of Part One to fully engage with their stories, at which point conspiracy begins to unite them, I was intrigued enough by the nature of their existence to stay at their side and to explore further the freaky, Gothic world they inhabit. It’s an Italianate world (Venetian even) of angels and demons, of choices between God and the Devil, good and evil, where corruption and routine assassinations are an accepted part of political protocol; it’s a Machiavellian world of little mercy.
As a baby, Cur is stolen from his parents and raised among a pack of killer dogs so that he might kill too; deliberately infected by a rabid dog, he fears water but has a heightened sense of smell. The physically mottled Magpie is a photographer who sees the world in negative tints, but can’t resist stealing shiny objects and precious secrets. The leprous Crow, who happens to be an authority on colour, ruthlessly plots to achieve immortality and absolute power, and distils the essence of carrion – a dead body here, a dead body there – in an attempt to inoculate himself against death. Gabriella is an angel whose wings have been viciously sawn off (by Magpie) at her father's orders, and whose ability to interpret messages from God is less than satisfactory. While Cuckoo has wax-like skin that is so malleable he feels he has no identity of his own, and so learns how to reshape his features so that he can adopt the identity of others and, if necessary, supplant them.
Jonathan Walker’s delight in playing with words, names, images, extends to Dan Hallett's wonderful illustrations. There’s the sense that each picture adds extra detail to the story – beyond the words. Take, for instance, the description of the public servant’s half-eaten salami sandwich when Cur is receiving instructions for an assassination. The reader is invited to question exactly what the salami is constituted of and then presented with an illustration of the salami-bound pig in question feeding on the entrails of an earlier assassin's victim. Certainly a case of what goes around comes around.
Bible-like in text layout, but with motifs drawn from heraldic emblems, tarot cards, card games, daguerreotypes, and with typefaces apparently reminiscent of Dante, Venice and Goya, this is a densely layered novel. Appropriately so, given the role that codes, prophecies and conspiracies play. However, so many elaborately interwoven elements can leave the reader wondering at times whether something crucial is being overlooked – something that needs to be deciphered – and the temptation with a book like this is to begin looking too hard for too many clues, codes and hidden references, so that one risks losing sight of the story and the associated pleasure in that. Despite the temptations, my reading of Five Wounds resisted those elements which threatened to interrupt my immediate pleasure in the story, knowing that, if I enjoy a book, I can always revisit it a second time, confident that other layers might then reveal themselves.
Five Wounds is one of those books I enjoyed holding, opening and exploring, and not just because it’s excitingly different to many of the books I read. Beyond being a well-crafted text, it’s a work of art in its own right. As good literature often will, it also extended my interest in a range of ideas, challenging me to explore new directions – in terms of the visual, the historical, the literary, the scientific, the geographical. But more than anything, it fulfilled its promise of adventure and playfulness. It is indeed a rich novel and I have no doubt I’ll be revisiting it.
and Five Wounds at Allen & Unwin
The View From Here interviews Jonathan Walker and Dan Hallett here