Review: 'Sand Castle' is a Haunting Meditation on Mortality

A comic review article by: Eric Hoffman

Sand Castle is a haunting and thought-provoking, if somewhat portentous, meditation on mortality, compulsively readable and concise. The story opens with a decidedly cinematic zoom (its author, Frederik Peeters, is a documentarian by trade) to a seaside cliff, passing through an underwater -- and decidedly birth canal-esque -- tunnel, out into a landlocked cove; clearly, the authors mean to suggest we are entering another world, and one that is altogether unfamiliar and strange.

This opening is followed by a scene straight out of Albert Camus' 1946 existentialist novel L'étranger: an itinerant Algerian wakes to find a nubile teenage woman undressing to skinny-dip in the cove's calm waters. There is an air of menace to this scene, compounded by the Algerian's unexplained nosebleeds; this condition eventually leads him to the realization that there is something fundamentally wrong about this place.



Yet the calamity that follows is not the implied rape and murder; instead, the authors turn their attention to the arrival at the cove of three separate groups of people: a mother and father and their two young children, a doctor accompanied by his wife, mother-in-law and two teenage children, and a writer, his daughter, and her husband, a nurse. The Algerian's presence causes them unease -- a rather distracting commentary on ongoing racial distrust between European and Middle Easter culture, in this case the bloody history between France and French-occupied Algeria.

After the discovery of the naked, dead body of the skinny-dipping woman, who appears to have rapidly aged, the doctor is quick to accuse the Algerian man of murder. Meanwhile, the youngest children begin to age noticeably, their development increasing exponentially at a pace the doctor eventually estimates at one year per hour. The group also discovers they are inexplicably unable to leave the cove, trapped as they are by some kind of invisible force field. This is a necessary conceit in order for the story to work, yet still somehow a less-than-satisfactory science fiction device; thankfully, the authors rightly dispose of any explanation for the cove's "magical" properties (no midi-chlorians or caves of light to be found here). The grandmother dies, and the adults, also rapidly aging, grow increasingly paranoid and depressed, while the youngest explore their developing sexuality, eventually leading to childbirth. This accelerated aging thus brings about a macrocosmic view of the entire expanse of life: birth, childhood, youth, young adulthood, mature adulthood, old age and death. In the midst of this, the characters undergo a cornucopia of human emotion: love, lust, jealousy, rage, distrust, paranoia, hopelessness and fear.



The "meaning" of the book, if you have not already figured it out, is that by collapsing time the authors can explore what time means and how aging impacts us, both physically and metaphysically. Though this becomes abundantly clear roughly halfway through the story, I found it difficult to put the book down; the authors made me care about these characters and wonder about their eventual fate -- will they escape this time vortex or will the clock run out? To drive the point home, the authors see fit to include a Kafka-esque parable at story's end. In it, a grotesque "half-man" (literally a man cut in half, his innards visible) visits a king, telling the king that he has come for his soul. In response, the king constructs a stronghold castle that, in the end, cannot keep the half-man out. The lesson of the parable is that death is inevitable, that whatever attempts we make to stave off death are futile, that all our castles are built of sand, the same sand, one assumes, that keeps time in an hourglass (and, of course, the bowl-shaped cave of this narrative is vaguely hourglass-shaped).

Putting aside Sand Castle, I found myself strangely affected by its tale. Sure, the metaphors are about a subtle as a brick to the head and yet Peeters' decidedly cinematic script remains tightly focused on its characters; most are presented in medium shots or close-ups, contributing the claustrophobic feel of the book, personalizing the events and making the reader to feel they are trapped on the beach with them. Moreover, Lévy's cartoonish yet expressionist art is well suited to the story's frenetic pacing and dreamlike tone. Every frame builds upon the narrative and pushes it further along its trajectory, its frantic desperation building flawlessly to a breathless climax.



In fact, this work left me considering the brevity of my own life, especially the feeling, particularly at mid-life, that the older one gets the more time speeds up, that, as the saying goes, the space between Thanksgiving and Christmas doesn't seem quite so long as it once did. I might mention the French philosopher Henri Bergson's concept of duration, which essentially states that time as experienced by human consciousness is not static, that its passage may speed up or slow down, depending on the situation of the observer. 

Soon after I set down the book, my three-year-old son woke from his sleep, crying. Going to his room, I laid down next to him to comfort him. I held him in my arms, struck by how quickly he had grown -- this is a common realization for a parent, I know, but making art of such an apprehension is by no means an easy feat. In their attempt, Peeters and Lévy convey some profound, if profoundly unsubtle, truths about the human condition. Weighty stuff, expertly told.



Eric Hoffman is the author of eleven volumes of poetry, the most recent being By the Hours: Selected Poems Early & Uncollected (2013), published by Dos Madres Press, and Oppen: A Narrative (2013), a critical biography of the poet George Oppen, published by Shearsman. Together with Dominick Grace, he co-edited two volumes of the University Press of Mississippi Conversations with Comic Artists series, Dave Sim: Conversations and Chester Brown: Conversations. 

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