This review is for Monster Portraits written by Sofia Samatar and illustrated by Del Samatar, which is out this week from Rose Metal Press. We’re also featuring an excerpt from Monster Portraits that readers can check out.
— The Editors
Monster Portraits, by Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar, explores the monster as a symbol of otherness. Through haunting, evocative language and fierce, enigmatic drawings, Monster Portraits examines with sympathy those who transcend boundaries and find themselves outsiders. “Like all monsters, we don’t belong, but our problem is time and not space. We got here too early. We have always had this sense of wrongful, unseemly arrival.”
This examination takes the form of a journey through the land of monsters, “that lasted an indeterminate length of time, which, outwardly, took the shape of five years.” We meet many monsters on this journey: bitter, beautiful, powerful, fierce, fantastic, exploited, misunderstood. We are allowed to see them as they see themselves. We learn what “monstrous” actually means — because there is none more monstrous than someone who would wield the epithet “monster” to banish another.
Monster Portraits comforts the monster, confronts the monstrous. Many of us see ourselves reflected in both. Exiles from the places we used to belong, born into the wrong body or skin or shape, here too soon or perhaps too late, unable to live as we truly are. But we are also monstrous in our ways; we laugh while somewhere else, our brothers and sisters suffer. We feast while elsewhere children starve. We have all been complicit in some way with this world’s cruelty.
In some ways, Monster Portraits reminds me of Leena Krohn’s exquisite Tainaron. Like Tainaron, Monster Portraits is told through the eyes of a narrator traversing the landscape of a foreign yet familiar place. It relays conversations with creatures we might consider strange, yet their uncanniness reflects the beats of our own lives. As in Tainaron, the land of monsters is obviously a physical place, a world that exists parallel to, concurrent with, or just beyond our own — but the geography never quite resolves. To me one of the most enchanting things about Monster Portraits is the names of all these fantastical places, neighborhoods and districts and lands where monsters dwell: Swoon. Soinoe. Fanderlee. Snimron. Crezhlorn. Names that have the faint ring of somewhere you’ve been, but can’t quite recall…
Unlike Tainaron, which is built from neat tidy entries of mellifluous prose, the poetry of Monster Portraits feels sprawling, discursive, meta. It’s a conversation with history, a reckoning with past monstrosities. The text is threaded with quotations from an impressively diverse selection of texts: Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Google, Arabian Nights. These quotations are cited with an academic’s authorial precision at the back of the book, an ingenious way of placing Monster Portraits within a web of allusions, anchoring it to the weight of the history it bears. I found myself flipping back and forth, reconsidering certain passages based on my new knowledge of the context they carry.
These references accrete around the text, but Sofia Samatar’s writing is powerful and original enough to support their weight. There are sentences so truthful, beautiful, and brutal they took my breath away. “Her heart bore a pair of claws that were useful for nothing, she told me, but scratching at itself.” “Is there any love, I wondered, with the amazing color and vibrancy of the love between siblings bearing an incommunicable secret?” “The one who acts remains elsewhere, out of sight, preparing a horror so obscene a monster could not look on it without bleeding.”
Art and words in this book are intimately intertwined, conceived in conjunction with each other, another secret between siblings. Imagery and language are in accord, and feel as if they’ve arrived hand-in-hand, neither one grafted on to the other as illustrated poetry (or poetry inspired by art) often feels. As the book says, “We would travel separately, but on the same ground.”
Del Samatar’s black-and-white drawings are arresting. Most are heavily shaded, with areas of inky blackness that set off an interplay between positive and negative space; everything is always defined in opposition to something else. The work resonates with traditional printmaking, etching, woodcuts; in its contrast that marries crisp lines with intricate design, it also feels inspired by the aesthetics of tattoo art. The visual vernacular connects to artists like H.R. Giger or M.C. Escher — weird, uncanny. There are repeating motifs of filigree, flowers and feather. And as befits these creatures: tooth and claw, carapace and bone.
Scattered throughout the book are also a few tentative sketches, process drawings. These felt equally at home. They brought a sense of movement and transition. Like the text, these works in progress are questioning and raw.
Monster Portraits doesn’t just reveal its process, but revels in it; so the work and the process become one and the same. This meta level tantalized and intrigued me, but left me wanting more. I desired a greater glimpse into the autobiographical aspects, the story anchoring the story. It seemed I was analyzing a sliver of something much deeper, broader, titanic even, buried beneath the surface. I wanted the metaphor to slink away and reveal the real, but it never quite happened.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism. I like a story that leaves me wanting more. This is after all the human condition.
There are moments where the book moves toward the fourth wall, in a threat to break it down. For instance: “At the last minute he told me, ‘We can’t use this one, it’s too real.’” Is the entry I’m reading too real, or is it another entry altogether, excised from this book? “The book I was trying to write…” Is it this book? Or another book, not yet written?
This is a book about monsters, but it is also a book about writing a book. And that second book is a ghost. The first book, the book I’m holding, feels haunted by a shadow version of itself, a second book that exists above or beyond this one, buried in the cracks.
Monster Portraits carries a weighty emotional heft for such a slim volume. It reads easily, but is not easily forgotten. Oblique, enigmatic, often fragmented, yet deeply true; I read this book like skimming a frozen lake, while its claws embedded in my heart.