A “novel without words” captures the turmoil of the working class: public housing, alcoholism, youth violence, adult bitterness, boredom, crime, and drugs.
Among the brilliant woodcut novel-makers of the first half of the 20th century, two stand out: Frans Masereel, a Belgian, perhaps best remembered for the wordless Mon Livre d’Heures, and Lynd Ward, an American engraver, whose six remarkable books laid the foundation for the modern graphic novel. In its method and themes (social realism and justice defined Ward’s best work) his expressionistic, mostly black-and-white art belongs to a bygone era—so much so that, while examining his progressive work recently, I found myself musing: Which would be more likely produced by a contemporary American novelist, a book about the struggles of the working poor or one made from woodcuts?
Writers in the U.K. tend to be more class conscious, and Neil Bousfield has continued Lynd Ward’s tradition with his intriguing and powerful novel Walking Shadows: A Novel without Words. This is a grim tale about a modern-day, working-class British family—a father and mother and two sons. In over two hundred prints, Bousfield captures a certain stratum of inner-city English culture, along with its frequent pathologies: ramshackle bars, trips to the chip shop, gloomy estate housing, youth violence and vandalism, adult resignation and bitterness, Albion’s ubiquitous domestic surveillance, mind-numbing boredom, crime and drugs and gambling.
The family unit in Walking Shadows may be intact, but it’s under all the pressures of working-class life. The parents hold dead-end jobs at the local Pack It & Wrap It warehouse. Money is tight. Alcohol is a constant temptation, its abuse almost a matter of fate. As the father leaves Pack It & Wrap It one evening, in a crowd, his co-workers return home in one direction but he goes alone to the pub. (An advertisement on a nearby wall announces “Drink”—as if there were no other choice.) In the meantime, new bills arrive daily. Debt mounts, as do unsolvable problems and accompanying rage. We follow the boys from childhood to their teenage years, as the family’s struggles continue and grow; their obsession with video games and truancy and theft, at the expense of schoolwork, prove too much for their downtrodden father, leading to a very violent episode. Afterward, the father attempts to raise money to pay for the damages, but he’s killed during a failed burglary.
Here we arrive at Walking Shadows’ main question: Will his sons, already on a trajectory of self-destruction, experience a similar demise? At the boys’ school, a placard trumpets the bromide, “Work Hard.” This posted message appears several times, serving as seemingly ironic commentary on the action. But is it a statement mocking the boys and their classmates, who are stuck forever in cyclical class oppression? Or is it something more earnest, both a warning and an optimistic, meritocratic challenge? The mute directness of Bousfield’s woodcuts illustrates his opinion on the matter, while the story’s resolution remains faithful to its social realism. There will be no sentimental ending, no deus ex machina, no national lottery prize. No one can save these boys but themselves. It’s a question of personal will—with the possible assistance of a local government agency.
Beneath Bousfield’s pessimism, however, lies hope as well as love. In this household it’s a rough love or a repressed love, but there is love nonetheless, found amidst difficult circumstances and during trying economic times. It seems appropriate that Bousfield is revisiting a novel type that was born with Lynd Ward’s groundbreaking Gods’ Man, published the very week of the Great Crash of 1929. In 2010’s economy, Bousfield seems to be competing not only with Ward but with Ward’s Great Depression circumstances—a tall task for a first book, but Bousfield holds his own. In addition to its simple narrative (fairly common to the genre), Walking Shadows boasts exceptional standalone prints; Bousfield, an engraver, is able to produce finer lines and more fully rendered work than a woodcutter might. (The difference involves how the wood blocks the artist employs were cut—with or across the grain.) There are many memorable images in Walking Shadows, including those of the mother mopping floors alone at Pack It & Wrap It. In one she’s moving a pail with her foot, in a gesture of futility and exhaustion; in another she seems to be washing away the shadows. There are also excellent exterior depictions throughout—including the father’s death scene and a single overhead shot of the housing complex where the family lives—and they are among the most striking images in the novel. Altogether, these pages are worth reading, then putting aside and revisiting, if only to admire Bousfield’s engraved prints for the fine one-off pieces of art that they are.