The Return of the Honey Buzzard is the debut graphic novel by Aimee De Jongh, who has been producing comics for SelfMadeHero since she was 17. This Dutch Prix Saint-Michel winning comic book creator has written a story of loss, regret and how sometimes life gets in the way of living.
Simon, the third generation owner of the Antonisse Bookshop, is facing some tough decisions. When the financial crisis hits, sales slump and he is forced to confront the closure of the family business. Returning from his storeroom in the woods, Simon witnesses a suicide. The moment hits him like a bomb. Old memories intrude, guilt bubbles up and his grip on reality loosens. It is only a chance encounter with a young student, Regina, that prompts him to open up about the past that haunts him.
Can a comic book that features suicide, grief, shattered dreams, bullying, and hints at a very inappropriate adultery ever be an enjoyable read? Can the art transcend the story? These questions rattled around my head while reading The Return of the Honey Buzzard. The story has two narrative time-frames. Simon is closing his father’s bookshop, despite bids to buy from a larger concern. He thinks that would be a betrayal of his family. His wife thinks it is better to keep the shop open; an on-going legacy. The second stream is Simon back in his school days. He is best friends with the heavily bullied Ralph. Simon is a bookworm who wants a career in ornithology. This doesn’t work out, obviously.
Adult Simon is an angry man. The anger permeates through the pages. He is emptying his storage facility, selling off the last of the books before closing the shop. One evening, he witnesses a suicide; one he might have been able to prevent. Events are driving a wedge in his relationship with his wife. One day, he comes across a young girl called Regina, who is about to have a fatal accident. He saves her, takes her for a coffee to calm her down, and eventually shows her the storage facility. She’s a bookish type too. Simon feels he can open up about his troubles and his childhood, and their relationship strengthens. Regina tells Simon he’s not to blame.
But is he? Back in the school days thread, and Ralph is beaten by the bullies. He vows revenge and gets a gun. Simon tries to stop him and something terrible happens. The moment, perhaps, when Simon’s dreams crash and burn; his life changes direction. So what does a Honey Buzzard have to do with any of this?
The title of the book, thanks to many film sequels, suggest that this is a continuing story. As a debut graphic novel, of course, it is not. The returning bird is the metaphor: these birds mate for life but migrate separately, returning to the same nest – but if one dies or is lost during migration, the other needs to make a fresh start. Simon is selling his bookshop. He witnesses a suicide. He has a dalliance with a young girl. He is the returning honey buzzard.
Which brings me to the main issue with this book. While the story is full of darkness and the characters are interesting, the metaphor and sub-text are all very heavy handed. Even the conclusion of Regina’s involvement is laid on a little thick. The reader is left in no doubt what is happening and why. There’s no room for interpretation, doubt, speculation or ambiguity. At the end, Simon finds a book on magic realism and a copy of Lolita. Enough said. In very dark stories, you need the subtly of these elements in order to elevate the story. Here, in The Return of the Honey Buzzard, it is clearly: bad things happen and there are consequences; career ambitions and even life pivots on small moments. What saves this story are the strength of the characters – who are not so black and white – the beautiful art, which of course is.
De Jongh’s artwork is that almost magic-realist style that reminds me of Charles Burns. It looks effortless, as if sketched, but I imagine that every stroke is deliberately placed for maximum effect. The panelling is fairly traditional, and there are many pages with no dialogue. De Jongh tells the story through the characters she draws. Which works beautifully. The way Regina looks at Simon. Young Simon’s fear and the way he curls himself into a ball. There are some gorgeous pages of woods, falling leaves and of course, the birds that Simon achingly wants to study.
Darkness prevails here. De Jongh does well to tackle these themes and keep the book an enjoyable experience to read. Mostly thanks to the delicious artwork and narrative. However, more subtlety is required in the storytelling. But only a little bit more. The art does indeed transcend the darkness of the story. SelfMadeHero have produced a lovely thing here. This hardback edition is worth getting your hands on, and De Jongh is certainly one to watch.
Check out the preview: http://www.selfmadehero.com/title.php?isbn=9781910593165&edition_id=302
Title: The Return of the Honey Buzzard
Reviewer: Ian J Simpson