A Taste Of Chlorine
by Bastien Vivès
Whenever reading graphic fiction (or indeed graphic non-fiction) I am often looking to see how each book justifies its form. What I mean by that is to ask each time, 'Why is this a graphic novel?' I do the same thing when I read pretty much anything to be honest, is this really a novel or would it be better as a film, is this actually a theatrical monologue etc etc. I think I'm particularly harsh on graphic work to see whether there really is any point in differentiating between 'comics' and any of the other more elitist descriptions of graphic work. Occasionally however you do read a book that couldn't possibly work as well in any other medium and A Taste Of Chlorine is such a book.
A teenage boy who suffers from curvature of the spine is instructed by his chiropractor to start swimming. Whilst at his local pool he meets a girl who helps him with his technique. He slowly grows in confidence not just with his stroke but also with her, their weekly meetings providing a friendship of little conversations but mainly companionship. One day she mouths something to him underwater, but what is it she says? We will never find out and it is just one of the things about this enigmatic book that makes it so charming. There is actually very little text in total, this is a book of gesture and movement, where the body is the main form of communication. Vives' artwork is beautiful in its specificity. Facial expressions speak volumes, our hero is bashful, disappointed, hopeful, distraught, determined; the girl masked behind goggles one minute, open eyed and beautiful the next, so confident in her body that her mere presence and proximity is a threat to the boy and a powerful sexual potential too.
Vivès also creates a brilliant rendering of his underwater environment too, changing the tones and detail to give a real sense of the change in environment and somehow managing to recreate the silence of the underwater realm too. This is important of course for that moment of secret communication I mentioned earlier but also because the very act of swimming, and of swimming underwater in particular, is going to become a very important part of the book's impact. Imagine that moment when you set yourself a task in the pool. Perhaps it was swimming your first length, holding your breath for a minute, or completing a whole length underwater. Remember the lung-bursting final moments when you thought you might not make it but pushed on through sheer force of will? Now you're getting a sense of what it feels like to read this book, and of what it feels like to reach out for something you really want.
This is one of those books that I want to say lots about in order to convince you to read it but find myself rendered slightly speechless by its simplicity, its beauty and its sheer ability to move the reader. It is easily the best graphic novel I have read this year and for quite some time. A bit like reading a perfectly honed short story or novella. I can't imagine a person who wouldn't find their life enriched by reading it. Maybe that's all I need to say.