Saturday, June 13, 2009

Aya--Marguerite Abouet (book review)

I so wanted to love Aya. As soon as I read about it on The Boston Bibliophile, I put a hold on my library's copy. A semi-autobiographical graphic novel set in the Ivory Coast! A glimpse back in time to 1978, before civil unrest wracked that part of western Africa, with illustrations by Clement Oubrerie to add to the ambience.

I didn't like it much.

Don't get me wrong, parts of it are funny or enlightening. In fact, any given page, taken on its own, has merit as a slice of life in another time and place. The problem comes in following the author's train of thought as she weaves the storylines together.

At first I couldn't figure out what my problem was. Abouet had gone to the trouble of introducing the major characters and their relationships to each other in the first few pages. So why the need to flip back to those pages repeatedly, as if I were attempting a complicated recipe? And why, even after checking the "recipe" two or three times, was I still confused?

It's all about point of view. The story is told in first person from Aya's point of view, but Aya isn't the focus of every scene. In fact, she's not even present much of the time. Here's her friend Bintou alone in her room. Here's a group of teens hanging out (but which one's Aya? No, she's not there). Here's Aya's friend--or is that Aya? No, because Aya was wearing a red dress--having private time with a boy.

Even when this wasn't baffling enough to send me back to page two, it distanced me from the story and kept me from connecting to any of the characters. Such a shame, because Abouet has created some wonderful, quirky characters from the friends and neighbors she remembers from her childhood in the Ivory Coast. Maybe she should have entitled it Friends of Aya, since that's who the story seemed to be about.

The Soundtrack: Ernesto Djédjé was a popular musician out of the Ivory Coast in the seventies. Here he is singing Ziboté (this video is still pictures only so shouldn't take too long to load). Who cares if I liked the book or not? Time to dance!


  1. Sorry to see this didn't work for you.

  2. I read a boo like that where the point f view was the 1st person, but then it was confusing because it seemed to be from a different perspective. I was always checking to see if I knew what was going on. It was very distracting.

  3. I recall thinking the same thing when I first read AYA, but I think my immersion into the world Abouet had created off-set that feeling. It's an understandable criticism, though.

  4. I enjoyed it. I think your criticism is valid, but there are other points about the book that outweigh your major points. I'm looking forward to books 2 & 3 and I've listed these graphic novels on our wish list.

    I'll have to get my review up.

  5. I have had trouble with graphic novels. I wonder if they require a different kind of reading? I.e., a different set of expectations? Quite frequently, I can't figure out what is going on, but maybe the format requires filling in the missing narrative oneself, I don't know.

  6. Generally, reading GNs are no different than reading DILBERT or MUTTS in your daily paper - one image following the next, in sequence. Though you're correct when you say the reader does fill in narrative - in-between panels, that is, since a comic that depicts every second of every human action would be gargantuan and tedious to read.

  7. I've been meaning to read this since I saw Marie and Claire's reviews. Sorry to hear it didn't work for you!

  8. I can totally understand your criticism - that's something that would bother me too.

  9. Rhapsody, which graphic novels have you tried? Maybe we can recommend one that would work better for you.

    Great comments from those who have read this already, thanks for adding your two cents. There was a lot that I liked about it, and I hope that came through in my review along with the criticism.

    In response to Rhapsody's question and Rich's response and my own musings: I think my expectation is slightly different for a graphic novel vs. traditional novel vs. comic strip. For a comic strip I don't necessarily expect each day's strip to tie to the next (though they sometimes do), but for a novel (graphic or not), I do. Also, I've never thought about point of view in a comic strip. If a Doonesbury strip is focused on other characters on any given day, I don't get confused ("Hey! Is that Mike Doonesbury? How come everyone's calling him Zonker?"). But in Aya there's a narrative, in Aya's point of view, from the first sentence. To me that's the creator making a pact with me that I'll be seeing the world through her eyes.

  10. Hey Ali! I'm so glad you picked up AYA. I can understand your concerns about the comic - when I teach this, our conversations often turn to why Abouet decided to title the book after Aya when she's not exactly the main focus of the story. And while I do agree with that assessment, I would ague that she is, however, the "center" of the book. She's our lens, our eyes and ears, for understanding life in Ivory Coast during the 1970s. Most readers know so little about the country and the time period and Abouet was very sensitive to this.

    I think one of the goals of the book is to see just how incredible Aya's efforts to want to break free from her community's expectations and become a doctor really are, particularly through the contrast with her friends, Bintou and Adjuoa, and in light of the sometimes narrow, sexist attitudes toward women in Yop City.

    Having said all this, I do think the artist could have done a better job of distinguished the three women's physical features perhaps? Part 2 of the series is very similar to the first, but I'm still a big fan of the story and I'm looking forward to the third (despite its imperfections). I'm just so delighted to see this story being told in the comics format!

  11. Claudia, first of all: how cool that you use a graphic novel as a teaching resource!

    All these insightful comments have talked me into going ahead and reading Part Two. I'm going to step back and take a broader view for the next in the series, rather than struggling to connect to individual characters. I'll try to let the point-of-view shifts wash over me--the opportunity to see the Ivory Coast through Abouet's eyes is worth that stretch. Thanks for the encouragement.

  12. Thanks for letting me know you had reviewed this! :) I think I enjoyed it more than you, though we had issues with the same things! I love Claudia's comment.

    I really want to read the second volume, but my library doesn't have it. :/