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‘Jaybird:’ Advance Hardcover Review

Lauri and Jaakko Ahonen’s Jaybird is a moving tribute to the survivors of armed conflict in Europe. A boy and his infirm mother, both anthropomorphized birds, “live quietly” in a rotting mansion. By day, the boy roams the halls — which are festooned with portraits of great military heroes from assumedly greater days — as a housekeeper. The mother, bedridden, spends her days slowly dying, completely dependent upon her son’s solicitude. He feeds her, cleans her — and, as the story begins, starts to ask her questions about the forbidden outside world.

Jaybird’s story is poignant, urgent, and deeply rewarding. Told with very little dialogue, the text nevertheless manages to convey the psychological complexities of day-to-day life for its traumatized cast. The son, unsure of his place, spends his hours tending to the only home he’s ever known, while his mother is forever in bed, whispering endlessly about the horrors that wait just beyond the windows, “bad birds” who will peck out the son’s eyes if given half a chance.

While the artwork in Jaybird is accomplished, none of it is particularly captivating. There are only a few arresting panels, though many panels carry a collective emotional weight that is formidable. For example, long portions of the story are concerned with the son’s endless wanderings through dusky hallways. These travels convey the size and scope of the son’s confinement, as well as the claustrophobia he experiences while exploring the home’s rotting-but-necessary defenses. While the authors’ scene-setting efforts are noteworthy, the book is only truly intriguing when the characters are interacting, either directly through conversation or indirectly through the son’s terribly misguided efforts to address his mother’s needs.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this text is the success with which the authors indicate that a large and terrible war may or may not be raging just beyond the confines of the birds’ gilded prison. Noteworthy black-and-white depictions of charming infantry and stunning color portraits of noble warriors indicate a grand and terrible conflict, which might not be resolved. This tension leads the reader — not unlike the son — to wonder if the dying woman’s warnings are reasonable or only the rantings of a traumatized mind.

The main action is constrained, and without giving anything away it can be observed that the piece is more concerned with affecting a certain tone than it is with telling a specific story, though there is certainly a story worth experiencing here. Throughout, the reader is invited to inhabit a very uncomfortable place; however, the promise of revelation and redemption for the main characters is more than enough to make that habitation worthwhile.

It should be noted that this book comes to us on the grim centennial of the Great War, which left much of Europe with lingering concerns about conflict and resolution that have yet to be answered. If like the son and mother in this sad, little story, we only have each other to depend on in a world of unchecked and mysterious violence, then we must view their tale with a certain amount of pity, not disdain, as their sorrow is our sorrow. During one key moment, the son steps into a room where a grim reminder of all that has been lost is laid out on a forgotten bed. As he stands over this tragedy, we get the sense that the survivor does not need to know the reason for a loss to understand the experience of loss. In that moment, Jaybird takes flight.




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