A Gift for a Ghost by Borja Gonzalez
Abrams Comic Arts (May 2020)
114 pages; $24.99 hardcover
Reviewed by Joshua Gage
Borja Gonzalez is a self-taught illustrator and strip cartoonist from Badajoz, Spain. His first published title, La Reina Orquidea, was a precious and haunting short piece which placed the author at the center of national attention. A Gift for a Ghost is his first long form work, recently translated into English and published for readers in the U.S.
A Gift for a Ghost has two plot lines. In the first, it’s 1856 and Teresa is preparing for her society debut. She wants to read her poetry about ghosts and flaming velocipedes, but her mother doesn’t approve. In the second, it’s 2016 and Gloria is convinced to join The Black Holes, a punk band started by her friends Laura and Christina. After that, things get twisted, plots overlap, and the novel progresses into surreal and beautiful places with only butterflies as guides.
The art in A Gift for a Ghost is very soft. The colors are often quite simple — shades of green and grey and white with the occasional burst of red — but then shift suddenly to vibrant full pages in gardens with vibrant flowers. The illustrations are equally as subtle, with the characters having no faces, differentiated only by their hair style or clothing. This makes the shifts and merging between the two storylines all the more exciting, as readers are given just enough detail to think they know what’s happening or when they are when it changes on the next page, but the character is still themself, only one-hundred and sixty years out of date.
Because the art is so restrained, the language is paramount. Gonzalez has written a very poignant script about young women exploring themselves artistically and creatively, and society pushing back against that. He alludes to this through the punk rock references scattered throughout the text, but also uses the shifts in time to convey questions about identity that anyone who has been a teenager is sure to identify with. There are points in the graphic novel where the art all but disappears and readers are following the rocking back and forth of a conversation, but they’re still enraptured by what’s happening, which is certainly a hallmark of quality literature.
It’s difficult to detail what happens in A Gift for a Ghost. As soon as readers think they have a grasp of the plot, it sifts through their fingers; however, as it does that, they become more caught up in the emotional arc of the story, to the point that the when and where and even who of the plot are almost an afterthought compared with the emotions and anxieties portrayed. It is a book that requires multiple readings, each one filled with new insight and treasures, and takes the Gothic ghost story into new, surreal, and unexpected places. Horror readers who like gentle plots and surreal, slipstream work that makes them think will thoroughly enjoy this graphic novel.