Review: Zenobia by Morten Dürr and Lars Horneman, UQP

Erich Mayer

This is a striking and deeply moving graphic novel, which uses simple drawings and few words to tell an important story.
Review: Zenobia by Morten Dürr and Lars Horneman, UQP

Zenobia, illustrated by Lars Horneman and written by Morten Dürr.

‘With Zenobia I wanted to make a story with a soft, quiet voice that reminds people that war is a tragedy. A story that could serve as a few minutes of silence in honour of the victims,' says author Morten Dürr. The result is this striking and deeply moving graphic novel, which uses simple drawings and few words to tell the story of Amina, a girl forced to escape war-torn Syria and seek refuge across the sea. The style of the drawings is realistic minimalism, rendered in strong colours powerfully deployed to engender mood.

Zenobia was queen of the Palmyrene Empire in the third century CE. She governed a multicultural and multi-ethnic society and protected religious minorities. She is still a national hero in Syria. Dürr and Lars Horneman have made a wise choice to name their book after her, possibly in the hope that Zenobia, the book, may inspire young and old to do something to help refugees – just as Zenobia, the queen, is an inspiration for Amina.

Zenobia is the story of Amina. She remembers happy times playing hide-and-seek with her mother. She remembers helping to cook dolmas, even when lamb, garlic and olives are no longer available and the only filling is rice with salt. She remembers her father kindly lying about how good the dolmas taste. Amina recalls her mother telling her she is almost a woman and ‘women can handle everything’. One day, her parents have to go out. They promise to return, but Amina waits for them in vain. Then things get even worse.

Among the outstanding illustrations of this work is that of proud Queen Zenobia, rendered in a deep majestic purple, her bearing broadcasting power and hope and victory over misfortune. Later, against a backdrop of umber and sepia, Horneman depicts two tiny figures, Amina and her uncle, dwarfed by devastated buildings, an immobilised tank and distant flames; the loneliness and starkness of their situation is palpable.

Apparently the human brain can process pictures tens of thousands times faster than it does words. Perhaps that is one of the reasons this story is so powerful, why its message is so heart-rending. That is not to belittle the skill of the authors, rather to endorse their choice of communication method. Many readers will remember the story of three-year-old refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, whose image – washed up on the beach, lying dead in the sand – made world headlines back in 2015. It was that picture that pulled at people’s heartstrings and drew their attention to the refugee crisis more than the many words published about it.

Zenobia is a remarkable book that sends a strong message about one of the world’s most persistent crises. Its power lies in its visual simplicity and a very few poignant words but, above all, it is impossible not to identify with Amina and her parents and uncle. Their story becomes your own; their family, your own family. In short, if any book can be perfect, this is it.

5 stars ★★★★★ 

Zenobia

Author: Morten Dürr 
Illustrator: Lars Horneman 

Category: Children's & Young Adult,Middle Reader ,Children's + Young Adults
Release Date: 1/10/2018
Pages: 96
ISBN: 978 0 7022 6025 4
AUD $ 19.95
UQP
What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info