A Fable of Feminist Lore

“… but also they were a family, because this story is all about that. About humans and human-ness. Fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters. Love and betrayal and loyalty and madness. Lovers and heroes and the passing of time and all those marvellous baffling things… those things that make us human.”

–excerpt from The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

“In the beginning was the world. And it was weird.” So begins the story of Cherry and Hero, two women and lovers, in the mythical empire Migdal Bavel. And, yes, the world English author Isabel Greenberg illustrates in her 2016 graphic novel The One Hundred Nights of Hero is weird in a fantastical sense (women become moons, magical pebbles are really, very magical), but it’s also weird as a comically absurd narrative that doubles with forthright political statements – statements on power and the confines of patriarchy.

Our leading lady, Cherry, needs to fend off a man that Cherry’s husband, Jerome, has cruelly set upon her. Jerome has wagered his slimy friend, Manfred, to win his castle if he can seduce his wife (Cherry) within 100 nights.

Hero, Cherry’s maid and lover, comes to the rescue and distracts the smarmy suitor by embarking upon a pilgrimage of storytelling. Manfred becomes enraptured with the stories — as are we, the readers — and we voyage through the tales as they weave together. And as the stories pass, so do the 100 nights…

But wait, back to that wager! Seem completely ridiculous? Especially for a feminist novel? Well, that’s the nature of Greenberg’s social commentary. With much irony and humour, the author has created a world where female power is censored in every way; women are owned objects in Migdal Bavel, not even permitted the ability to read.

Of course, all the female characters are secretly much more clever than their male counterparts, but that’s part of the story’s cheeky tone. The male characters and their remarks are so heavily salted with absurdity that the novel makes for a comedic read, but Greenberg is openly taking shots at the power struggle inherent in gender dynamics. And by making them so exaggerated and ludicrous, she succeeds in making her point but also in making us laugh.

From prologue to epilogue, this book draws you into a mysterious world. The illustrations are simple and swept with a dark nature; Greenberg relies heavily on the stark contrast of black, white and shifting greys and uses a simple colour palette to emphasize a brash voice. Her aesthetic choices work well; to complement a dramatic shift in the story, she shifts from a whimsical scene to a reproachful one with a rush of bright and abrasive colours. This helps create tones of severity, as is most necessary for any value-laden tale, I believe!

The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a fable for adults, with many morals hidden under satirical quips and fancy. And those lessons Greenberg asks us to ponder? The angry silence of patriarchy; duties bound by the will of others; the fierce power of women; and the awesome nature of storytelling. Heavy topics even for a hearty appetite, but Greenberg makes them pleasantly digestible.

And using clever creativity to shame the scourge of gender inequality from our society is something I happily applaud the author for. A feminist picture book, a quirky dream book, an artsy call-to-arms book, The One Hundred Nights of Hero is an imaginative read for all sisters and those who love them.

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