Books As Art: Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine Trilogy

I just read three books in an hour. True, they’re short kid-length books. An epistolary trilogy whose essence I’m at a loss to fully capture. All I can say is the Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock is a joy to read. Yet, it’s also sad, hopeful, poignant. And so achingly human. I’ll treasure it and read it many times.

The main story that continues from the first book to the third is a love story and yet it’s much more than what any romance genre series offers you. The story line is deceptively simple because beneath the face it presents lies a complex of conflicting, confusing desires and misgivings.

The love between Griffin and Sabine is laced with loneliness and unbearable longing because they want so desperately to be together but somehow, they never manage to be. When Sabine goes to London, Griffin flies away, first to Dublin, then Florence, and other far-flung destinations. The two have never met in person and they have carried out their love affair only through postcards and letters.

Griffin has fled on purpose. He’s not ready to meet Sabine. Fear is eating at him. Fear of his worthiness. Maybe fear that he can’t endure the happiness and heartache love can bring. And yet, he’s pleading for Sabine’s help.

The interiority of the characters marks the trilogy’s literary pedigree; but it’s a category that can’t accommodate the lovely, whimsical, sometimes surrealistic artwork the characters—who are both artists—adorn the letters and postcards they send each other. By virtue of their illustrations, you could call this trilogy an adult picture book for the child that resides in every adult. But again, you can’t help feeling it’s more than that because its narrative content deals with intricate adult themes.

The publisher classifies the trilogy as multimedia books. Not only are there illustrations on every page, you’ll also find that Sabine’s and Griffin’s missives are very distinctive in style. Sabine always writes in long hand and Griffin either hand prints (postcards) or types (letters). What’s more, all letters are enclosed in envelopes attached to a page. You have to take the letters out to read them. Whimsy, thus, extends beyond the illustrated narrative.

As lovers, Griffin and Sabine are unique, not only because they’re both artists. Sabine is clairvoyant, but of only one thing. In her dreams or in a dream-like state, she sees the artwork Griffin is creating while he’s in the process of doing it. And yet, they’re several thousand miles apart. He’s in London and she’s somewhere in the South Pacific. With this story element, the trilogy hovers on the edge of fantasy. But I prefer to believe it’s the artist-writer’s way of telling you that something soulful or spiritual or magical binds Griffin and Sabine from the beginning (which may be true of everyone who falls in love). But that connection is, at first, obvious only to Sabine who is the more hopeful and confident of the two.

While you could keep on probing into the nuances of the love between Sabine and Griffin, the suspicion intrudes and lingers that Sabine and Griffin are actually two sides of the same person. Griffin seems to realize this (“If I invented you, then you don’t exist.”) But he’s not sure (“If I didn’t write your letters and you did, then you’re real and I’m crazy.”). In that case, you can interpret the novel as an exploration into how we see ourselves, deal with our warring attributes, and make ourselves whole.

On the other hand, don’t we sometimes think of love as uniting two people into one? However you prefer to see this trilogy, it tackles all those human issues in the guise of beguiling picture books.

I think you’ll find these three books—which must be read in sequence to get the full story—as delightful as I did. One that invites you to linger among its pages. They are that rare entity of books as art.


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