Wednesday 12 February 2020

Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg

Desolate moorlands have such a strong association with the works of Bronte sisters so it’s fitting that Glass Town (Jonathan Cape), a biography of sorts, should begin with Charlotte Bronte out alone amongst them. Charlotte is approached by a gentleman she appears to know who wants her to talk about her past, and so begins her recollections of childhood when she and her siblings – Branwell, Emily and Anne – created a fictional world; The Glass Town Confederacy. It soon becomes apparent that the man she is talking to is actually a character from this long-neglected world, and so we are introduced to a major theme of the book, about how the attention and affection put into creating a fictional world can impede on reality. Charlotte Bronte recalls how she succumbed to what she called “scribblemania” and began to lose sight of what was important around her and the characters from the world began to bleed into her real life. For her, the fairy tale-like world they created is actually something to be cautious of and avoided.

There are three narratives at work in the story: the present, involving the conversation between the older Charlotte Bronte and the character she created; the past, showing the Bronte siblings creating the world and the affect it has on their relationships with each other; also the fictional world of Glass Town, which focuses on a compelling tug-of-love story between five characters which manages to escalate to the point of war. This is the area where author-illustrator Isabel Greenberg had to employ some creative licence, not because there is so little that exists from the Bronte siblings work on Green Town, but because there is so much. Greenberg has spoken of (in an interview with The Guardian here) "Tolkien levels" to the quality and scale of world-building, which she had to shape into something a little more straightforward for the purpose the book. 

The artwork is charming and evocative – rough, child-like drawings in pencil and charcoal, in what Greenberg has referred to as a scratchy finish. The small hands and feet draw attention to heads and therefore expressions, and the overall affect makes them look like cardboard characters in a Victorian toy theatre; as if they were actually all part of a fiction created by children. The backgrounds have the impression of wood cut prints and the colouring contrasts the brightness of the fictional world with a more monochromatic depiction of reality.  

Incidentally, Jonathan Cape have done a great job with the production of the book; an appropriately sized hardcover with a red ribbon page marker and gold embossed lettering for the title to accompany the bold cover illustration. 

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