2010, Allen & Unwin
Written by Jonathan Walker
Illustrated by Dan Hallett
I’ve always felt the contemporary illustrated novel to be a bit of a bastardised mongrel; often lacking the substance and/or convenient format of a regular novel, while seldom delivering the immediacy of sequential art. Five Wounds has perhaps put an end to my ignorance. Rather than compensate for a deficiency of storytelling finesse, the images in this “illuminated novel” are an essential part of an intriguing, multifaceted package.
Jonathan Walkers’s dense narrative weaves between the tangled lives and machinations of five “freaks”. Tormented savage Car was abducted as a child and raised by dogs to be an assassin. Gabrielle is an angel, whose messages from God have arrived under a layer of static ever since her father had her wings surgically removed. Expert card sharp Cuckoo, born with a malleable, wax-like face, plans to replace another gentleman’s identity. Magpie, a disfigured thief and photographer, obsesses over corpses while carrying out thefts that he believes beneficial to the victims. Perhaps the vilest of these creatures, Crow is an alchemist willing to resort to the most sickening methods to cure his degenerative disease.
These five torn souls inhabit no time or place from our history, but an alternate world ruled by absurdly barbaric politics and sentient dogs. Magpie’s obsessive use of daguerreotypes and the presence of a canal system suggests a landscape reminiscent of 19th Century Venice; a subject Walker has written about for over a decade. His first illustrated novel Pistols! Treason! Murder! (also illustrated by Hallett) was the biography of a Venetian spy.
Walker’s tale effectively hops about in a non-linear fashion, detailing the initial encounters between his principal characters from multiple perspectives, and by the second act each of these wretched creatures has revealed a back-story terrible enough to earn our sympathy. There’s also a touch of black humour sewn throughout, particularly during a dinner scene in which the table acquires a fresh corpse with each of a series of brief blackouts.
Five Wounds‘ story would stand proud in any format, but the combination of Walker’s rich cityscape and Hallett’s spidery imagery results in something beyond a conventional book with superfluous pictures. Text and imagery feed off one another like Siamese twins, to the extent that it’s difficult to imagine either element surviving if separated. Adding a level of metafictional authenticity, this hardback tome has been defaced, as if to give the impression that someone else discovered your edition long before you. Lines of text are crossed out (though still barely legible), while hastily scrawled messages contradict Walker’s prose, which is itself presented via a page layout similar to that seen in the standard Bible.
Rife with Christian allegory, literary allusions and hidden codes, Five Wounds is an elaborate enigma, but one that I am content to leave unsolved. Usually, such apathy on my part is the result of a less than involving read, but Walker’s tale is so expertly set up and executed that by the book’s final pages I cared for his tragic protagonists enough to leave these underlying depths unexplored. Whether or not the book delivers on the illuminations promised in its title, I therefore couldn’t possibly say without reading it a second time and, quite likely, indulging in extensive research.
But that’s beyond the point; whether you find greater meanings bellow its soiled surface or reach Walker’s dual endings scratching your head, Five Wounds: An illuminated Novel remains immersive, satisfying and consistently inventive.