Sunday, August 31, 2008

Requiem for a Beast: A review

As I flagged in a previous post on the 2008 Children’s Book Council Awards (CBC), the winner of the Picture Book section “…will cause quite a stir”; and it has already. Matt Ottley’s “Requiem for a Beast: a work for image, word and music” is an ambitious work. It is a significant ‘book’, primarily because of its multimodal approach. It has moments of brilliance, but it is a harrowing ‘read’! It is also an inappropriate choice for the Picture Book of the Year (more on this later). Within the restrictions of my own length limit for this blog (about 1,000 words MAX!), I will make some comments on the book and the award it has received.

About the author

Matt Ottley is an author, artist and composer. He is creator of such highly acclaimed works as What Faust saw, Mrs Millie's Painting and the award winning collaboration with Nadia Wheatley, Luke's Way of Looking. He was born in 1962 in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea where he spent the first twelve years of his life. His family then moved to Sydney, where he attended high school and studied painting under the artist Stan Clements. Matt worked as a jackeroo on cattle stations in western Queensland before returning to Sydney to study fine arts at the Julian Ashton School of Art. He also began studying the classical guitar and musical composition.

In this work Ottley displays all of his skills. He offers varied colour illustrations, using oil on canvas, oil on paper, coloured pencil and varied use of text and image in combination. This is a remarkable work that is worth considering for the art alone. No doubt it will be studied as much by students of art as of literature.

About the book

The book is a large-format hardcover illustrated book that looks like a picture book, but of course isn’t. “Requiem for a Beast” is really a ‘graphic novel’ for adults and young adults (see my previous post on comics in which I address some aspects of this form). A graphic novel is a novel whose narrative is conveyed through a combination of text and art. While often the art in a graphic novel is in comic format, there are many diverse examples of this literary form. Ottley has pushed the envelope by adding music. The publishers have accurately promoted the book as a graphic novel, but sadly there is no category for this type of work in the CBC awards. Perhaps Ottley has created a new form – the ‘multimodal graphic novel’ – but one suspects that there will be few others in this precise category!

One glance at the ‘book’ indicates quickly that it is not typical of the picture book genre. It is a unique blend of word, traditional illustrations, multi-illustration pages, ‘comic-like’ sequences, handwritten script as well as type script, long sections of narrative, short quotes and anecdotes, and then music. The book ends with the contents of a short musical and an accompanying CD. Some might call it a multimodal text, but that says more about the way it might be read and the devices the author uses than the work. The work needs to be ‘read’ (at least on first reading) in a linear way, like most novels, but of course the reader needs to read integrate illustration and music in arriving at a full understanding of the novel.

About the story

But what is this book about? Good question. It took me multiple readings to feel confident that I could write this post. This in itself should ring alarm bells. Why would I be reading such a book in relation to the CBC Children’s Book Council awards? This is a book that will only be appreciated by most people if studied. For the average teenager 16+ this book will required ‘guided reading’ and it has no relevance for younger readers. I needed to study the book to appreciate it; this text requires effort.

Essentially, Ottley has set out to write, draw, and compose a work that uses the Australian Stockman’s life as the centrepiece of a work that tries to offer a different story of this much romanticised figure in the Australian psyche. In his own words, shared just after the award announcement when responding to some of the controversy surrounding the choice of the book, he suggested that:

"We have a romanticised view of what a stockman's life is like, a Man From Snowy River-view, and I wanted to present life in a stock camp as it really is, in all its grittiness."
And ‘gritty’ it is. As he explores the parallel lives of a young man working on an outback station coming face to face with a rogue bull, the story of his childhood, and the stories of dispossessed Aboriginal people. Within this narrative he explores other significant themes - the stolen generation (international readers might need this link), conquering one’s demons, loss, separation, guilt and forgiveness, separation and loneliness, family and community.

The book is in four parts, each with a title in Latin. Part one is Dies Irae (Day of wrath), presumably tied intertextually with the 13th Century hymn about the day of God's judgement. The opening pages, with its five magnificent oil paintings of the Australian landscape and three haunting statements, offer some clear clues to the reader:
It’s our memories that make us
This country, these hills you see; this is my mother’s country, and her mother’s too.”
I’m supposed to be a fully initiated woman, but that knowledge, that memory, is gone. Aboriginal Elder”
A bull and a metaphorical beast are then introduced along with the boy who embarks on a personal journey. The book then shares the physical and internal journey of self-discovery. Ottley situates this within his own attempt to offer an alternative telling of the life of Australian stockman in remote northern Queensland. All this is set against the backdrop of Indigenous suffering and alienation. Ottley weaves multiple narratives of the boy’s life and Indigenous memories. At times it is difficult to know as ‘reader’ where you are. Is this memory, dream, nightmare, or reality? And whose life and moral choices are in focus at which point in time? This work is a riot of rich visual and verbal imagery.

The work ends in Part 4 with Ottley’s weaving of Indigenous story and anecdote and his own rich musical composition. Again the title for this part is in Latin, Pie Jesu, which is derived from the final couplet of the hymn Dies Irae (which as indicated above is also the title of part 1). The words of the couplet signal that this final part is where there is resolution and justice. Sweet Lord Jesus, Grant them everlasting rest. Rest for those who have suffered, rest for the memories that have shaped the boy. This for me as ‘reader’ was the most harrowing part of my final reading of this work (several were required). And it was only here that I caught a glimpse of what Ottley was trying to achieve. The blend of authentic voices in English and Bundjalung language, the Latin drawn from the text of the 12th century poem Requiem, and Ottley’s composition performed with varied stringed instruments, certainly had an emotional impact; but for this reader, not a complete and satisfying resolution to the text that preceded it.

My view on the book

I personally believe that this as a groundbreaking book, but one that doesn’t quite achieve what it sets out to achieve. Putting to one side the confusion caused by its classification as a picture book, I find that it is a ‘mixed’ work. As indicated in the introduction to this post, it has moments of brilliance. The art is wonderful and the music is also memorable. The text is more varied and the structure just a little too complex for many readers unless the intent is simply for this to become an upper secondary school literary text or artistic work for formal study. Parts of the written text (especially the extended sections) are not of uniform quality. I felt that some sections required another edit; some sections seemed over-worked, with one too many adjectives or adverbs, where simplicity would have been better - "incandescent lightning", "immeasurable barrenness", "bellowing at the mushroom of cloud that boils from the horizon and couches the full moon." Given that Ottley worked on Requiem for a beast for seven years he probably won't agree. His most powerful words are those that are simple like his brilliant opening - "It's our memories that make us."

The CBC has made a mistake (in my opinion) in awarding this the picture book of the year. While it is an interesting and groundbreaking work, on pragmatic grounds alone, the prize should have gone to a picture book, not a graphic novel. There are many fine authors and illustrators striving to win this award with work that fits the category. Why award it to a work that does not? My suggestion to the CBC is to introduce a category of graphic novel that need not be awarded every year. Ottley would certainly have deservedly won this award for what is a significant work.

What do kids think of the book?

I wondered what teenagers would make of this book. It seems that at least one secondary class that has studied the book has some fans as well as some disinterested readers. You can read some of their responses on a Tasmanian website where their teacher has helpfully posted her class responses - Student Web Forums.

Here are just two of the responses:
This book made an impact on me, the author captured the experience of death well, I think. I liked the writing more then the pictures though...

I didn't like this book. It was to (sic) serious and not what i would call a little kids book.
The controversy

While I agree with many who have questioned the award of to this book in the picture book category, I find the comments about language unjustified. Ottley dod not write this book for little children.

The Courier Mail reports on outrage in Brisbane that it might be marketed to children under 12 years, citing the use of the “f-word” as the problem.

If it is being marketed to young children I'd be concerned as well, but this seems unlikely. At least one online source has posted a warning about the language and adult themes - see for example, BooksDirect.

Rosemary Sorenson also talks about the award in her article 'Foul' kids' book Requiem for a Beast one of the century's best in the Australian (23rd August 2008).

Related Posts

See my other posts on Children's Literature (here)

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