Let me start with a confession. Despite my claims to bookishness, before How to Survive in the North, I had never read a graphic novel. It’s a whole world I know little or nothing about. So I have no real barometer to measure the book against. I know not whether it is better or worse than other books of its kind, whether it breaks new ground or churns over familiar turf.
I feel out of my depth – it’s like discovering new music, like listening to jazz for the first time. All I do know is that I read it, mesmerised, in one sitting.
The book weaves together three stories, two of them historical and based on truth, the third is contemporary and entirely fictional. The true stories are each about expeditions. They tell us much about survival, and about that strange human spirit that make us go to places that may kill us.
The third story, on the face of it, strikes a very different note, following a college professor who pursues love and finds only disgrace and isolation. It is, in the end, also about survival and that same human spirit. The stories play different tunes; they move and meld, hinting at commonalities but remaining separate and distinct – they could each be told on their own; they become something more powerful when told together. Like jazz.
It’s not a book for younger children (the contemporary story has more adult themes) but if graphic novels can be this good, then I want more. You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to know that, on first listen, Kind of Blue is something special. Even from a position of ignorance, I can tell How to Survive in the North is a cracker.