Helen has just moved to rural Wales with her parents. She’s quiet and solitary, but she isn’t shy. She’s the kind of child whose mother must ask her not to bring any more dying animals to the house. Helen loves watching nature and recording her observations and theories in her journal, as well as the Welsh words she’s learned: “gwennol” is the name for the bird that we call a swallow, and “gast” is Welsh for woman. New to the language, Helen initially thinks the egg seller from town is talking about a dead bird when he mentions Emrys: “A rare bird. Down by here. Cuddig. I don’t know what he’d be called… took his own life… Upset my birds terrible it did.” Soon enough, she realizes he’s referring to a neighbor who committed suicide, and her inquisitive nature leads to an exploration of human life and death.
Carol Swain has chosen to present Gast in the format of a nine-panel grid, establishing a slow pace to which its many wordless pages contribute. As the small panels pass, little moments rise and fall: Helen watches the sky, writes in her journal, walks up a hill, sits down, watches the sky, writes in her journal, walks along a road, looks at her reflection in a puddle, slowly approaches a looming barn house, sits on its steps, writes a bit more, and finally walks inside. The steady measure of the panels adds to the air of quiet contemplation and the lazy, nothing-to-do quality of Helen’s days. She even sits in her dark room at night, watching the lights in people’s windows wink out across the countryside. This is the world as Helen sees it: broad landscapes populated by animals and few people, parceled out and meant to be sifted for clues.
Swain’s black-and-white pencils are not rough but neither are they completely polished. The art of Gast reflects Helen’s journal: drawn with skill, care, and a keen eye without being very detailed. Helen’s face is a pale blank with lines that suggest her nose and mouth, straight eyebrows and small lines for eyes, without so much as an iris. However, Swain still brings out a set to Helen’s jaw, a change from blank seriousness to determined nervousness to unsure friendliness.
A strange quirk of this otherwise realistic world is that Helen can hear animals speak to her. It could be that Helen is imagining these conversations and peppering them with things that she’s heard adults mention, or it could be a touch of magical realism in Swain’s world. Either way, it is a mark of Helen’s otherness. Though she doesn’t act wary of humans, she searches for reasons why other people act the way they do. There’s something that divides her from everyone else, and she’s going to find out what it is. Emrys is a big piece of this puzzle for her.
From a pair of farm dogs, Helen learns that Emrys was not a bird, but a man who used colored sheep powder in his hair and wore makeup. They also tell her that the makeup bag she takes from a rubbish skip belonged to Emrys. This information leads Helen further in her investigation of his life. She goes to great lengths to understand him, both figuratively and literally, at one point venturing to England on a quest for answers. It isn’t clear whether she’s merely curious why someone would commit suicide, or if her curiosity reflects an internal sympathy for his transgender or genderqueer identity. It is never spelled out whether Helen identifies with Emrys as an outsider or if there is something more about his gender-play that strikes a familiar feeling within her.
Gast’s beauty is that it does not spell these things out. Swain examines humanity and the natural world, inspecting how they intersect and oppose one another through the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl. As Helen explores her identity and the identity of Emrys, so too does the reader—and because Emrys cannot speak for himself, some things can never be known. Swain has created a subtle, meditative work of fiction with themes that will resonate with teens and adult readers alike.
by Carol Swain
Fantagraphics Books, 2014