The Nightingale That Never Sang is a graphic novel about childhood and secrets—specifically, the secret places where children have their first encounters with mortality and trauma. In these linked stories, homemade forts, jewelry boxes, dollhouses, and animal burials provide a vocabulary that Estonian-born Finnish creator Juliana Hyrri deploys to explore girlhood experiences of powerlessness and cruelty.
First-person narration and expressionistic art with smudgy lines and visible brushstrokes give these stories the naive, intimate quality of an elementary school art project, possibly the kind that ends with a visit to the school psychologist. While Hyrri’s stories have an undercurrent of playfulness—the exhilaration of a childhood visit to a water park, the transgressive pleasure of butchering Barbie dolls—each story resolves on a sinister note. Children and animals die, a playdate is disrupted by intimations of sexual abuse, and toys, momentarily treasured, are consigned to shrubby or woodland graves. Many of the stories feature a mismatch between art and text, as in “The Sleepover,” in which the narrator recounts the innocent secret of a schoolyard wedding, even as she depicts a more sinister encounter with her friend’s father. Employing ambiguity and narrative gaps, these stories powerfully evoke the voicelessness of childhood.
I found two stories particularly effective: the title story, “The Nightingale That Never Sang,” which uses a vivid palette of pink and black to tell an unsettling story about girls whose attempts to befriend wild animals go south in the most unpleasant way possible. “We never wanted to hurt any living thing,” the narrator claims, but when a baby bird dies on their watch, their disgust is accompanied not by guilt, but a fear of getting caught. The last story in the collection, “The Clambox,” similarly features young girls messily wielding their agency, with two friends illicitly burying treasured objects in a girlhood ritual, an act of catharsis and rebellion against the backdrop of difficult parent-child relationships.
I found a lot to admire in Hyrri’s craft; her art really is striking, and each story has a tight script and strong narrative arc. Still, the relentlessly grim tone of this collection makes it difficult for me to issue a wholehearted recommendation. I often enjoy macabre coming-of-age tales, but these stories had a sameness that made reading them, frankly, a slog; once I had the formula figured out, the shape of each story felt telegraphed and predictable. This was possibly by design, as childhood hardships often have a banal inevitability, but it meant that I rarely felt challenged or surprised as a reader. The one story that departed from the formula, “Being Selfish is a Sin,” fell flat for me; the story of siblings caring for a pregnant cat ends with surreal twist that had the potential to be masterful, but simply didn’t feel rooted in story, making me laugh out loud at a moment that I’m fairly certain wasn’t meant to be funny.
The Nightingale That Never Sang is worth considering for readers and collections that prize indie and experimental comics; it’s possible that this blend of psychological realism and subtle horror would land better with another reader. Adult language, graphic imagery, and references to sexual assault and abuse make this book most suitable for adults and mature teens.
The Nightingale That Never Sang
By Juliana Hyrri
Featherproof Books, 2022
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Estonian, Finnish,