Sometimes I like to judge a book by its cover. Kerascoët’s watercolors jumped out at me as I organized the graphic novel section at the library (I work there, so I wasn’t just being weird). Next thing I know, I’m checking out Beautiful Darkness and reading the first half on my break.
The book begins with a tea party between two of the main characters, Aurora and Hector. Two pages in, the ceiling begins falling down in purplish globs. Aurora rushes off to find an escape. She climbs through a strangely round hole, into a rainstorm. Then, she slips. From the ground she sees the bigger picture and so does the reader. A crowd of tiny, pixie-sized people are crawling out of a little girl who appears to be dead.
When the sun comes out, Aurora searches for the others that swelled out of the corpse. No one really seems to know what happened, and no one seems interested in finding out. They set up shelters among towering grasses and focus on survival.The nastier sides of humanity take over in most of the characters, and Aurora struggles to maintain her generosity and kindness. In the background, the corpse decays in a swarm of flies and maggots.
Their story is supposed to be “a bleak allegory about surviving the human experience” according to the back cover. For this reason, many of the characters may seem emotionally shallow. From greed and vanity to selfishness and neuroticism, the little water color characters embody a range of human flaws. As the story progresses, Aurora becomes more and more strained to keep them together as a civilized group of beings. This culminates in an unexpectedly dark turn from our light-hearted heroine.
Though disturbing, I keep picking this book up again and thinking about its meaning. I’ve read several interpretations of it as well. One thing that stands out to me is a certain disconnect between the characters and nature. Most of them seem ignorant to the reality of nature, often walking into dangerous situations senselessly. Even Aurora expects animals to behave like neighbors rather than animals. She gathers them together for a party, but the animals, being animals, only take all the food and pee on the table.
Even in such a setting, the characters cling to petty social hierarchies and ritual. There is a scene where Zelie, a selfish and vain character, convinces a self-conscious one-eyed girl named Timothy to be buried alive. After she performs a strange chant, she says, “That’s one ceremony done. Very, very good.” This stuck out to me as a strong statement on how people have ritualized social clicks. Think popular girl versus the weird kid with black, side-swept bangs.
Beautiful Darkness is a lot to take in. It’s the kind of book you read through several times, sometimes pausing on a page longer to grasp at the meaning. If you like real fairy tales, the Grimm kind, where nature and humanity loom over the protagonist with sharp teeth, it’s worth a read.