Britten and Brülightly by Hannah Berry

Categories:  Reviews

Britten and Brülightly
by Hannah Berry
Metropolitan Books

hannahberrybrittenBritten and Brülightly is so good it’s hard to believe it’s Hannah Berry’s first book. Suspenseful, engrossing, beautifully painted, and extremely sad, it seems a book that should at least be Berry’s sophomore effort. Then again, she’s only 25.

Although it got some press, Britten and Brülightly, which was published in April by Metropolitan Books, seems to have sort of slipped under the radar in the U.S. Probably because it is the debut work by a little-known, 25-year-old woman who lives across the ocean in Brighton, England. But it did garner much attention and praise in the U.K., and having read it, I can safely say it deserves all of that commendation. This is undoubtedly one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in a while.

The book tells a classic noir story, following private detective Fernández Britten (who prefers the term “researcher”) as he investigates a suicide case. He has been hired by the fiancé of the deceased man, who is convinced her husband-to-be didn’t kill himself. As Britten unravels the details of the case, the situation becomes increasingly dangerous, violent, and confusing. In the end, the true story involves all the juicy bits of a good noir: blackmail, illegitimate children, more deaths, and a sad, sad truth.

To point out that the plot involves these things is mainly to say that Berry’s narrative succeeds as much as that of any well-crafted story of its kind; it’s tight and believable (in a complicated-mystery kind of way), albeit slightly confusing near the end when she reveals the truth in a beautifully rhythmic, wordless, two-page montage. What causes Britten and Brülightly to rise above, though, are the distinctive touches she brings to her chosen genre, the ways in which she makes it hers.

Take Britten’s partner, for example. From the start—a gray-blue and white page that shows Britten getting out of bed, already dressed and weary at 8 a.m.—Berry posits this half of the pair as the focus of the book, his first-person narration helping to carry the story. On the third page, he mentions his partner, Stewart Brülightly, and two pages later we meet the elusive man when Britten produces and starts conversing with a small white square. Is Brülightly a piece of paper? A photograph? It’s only on page seven that Berry spells out the situation for us: “Don’t be lecherous,” Britten says to Brülightly, “you’re a teabag.” “I’m a teabag with needs, Fern,” the latter replies.

This is definitely weird and punny (“brew lightly”) territory, but it’s interesting, too, especially as the book goes on. Britten, it becomes clear, is an extremely depressed man searching desperately for one case that will allow him to bring a little hope and positivity into the world. The fact that his partner is a teabag raises an important question about his mental stability: Are we to suspend our disbelief and assume the feasibility of a talking teabag in this fictive world? Or is Brülightly’s existence a sign of Britten’s mental instability as he finds it harder to live with himself and the nickname and reputation he has earned, “The Heartbreaker”? It is to the author’s credit that she can make what initially seems an absurdity into a valid point of discussion.

The book’s stunning artwork also deserves credit. Berry, who cites French comics, which are often fully painted, as her precedent, saying they have “incredible visual depth,” hand painted the entire book, frame by frame, page by page. The hard work paid off: the resulting palette feels charged and brooding despite its muted tones. The scenes look washed, as though we are constantly seeing them through a veil of rain or the fog of memory (it does rain a lot—this is England), which contributes to an overarching feeling that, like it does to Britten, the truth holds us at bay; we can only inch closer one thought or discovery at a time.

Panels painted from above or below eye level and full-page spreads that linger long enough on a scene to hint at voyeurism reinforce this sense that as readers, we are standing outside looking in, following the movements of the characters from behind a lens. And the lens analogy seems appropriate, as the book feels quite cinematic at times. It may come with the territory—most of the best noirs are films. But Berry proves quite ably that they don’t have to be.

–Jillian Steinhauer

One Comment to “Britten and Brülightly by Hannah Berry”

  1. Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Nov. 5, 2009: Carrying it over