Review: Vanni (New Internationalist)

Vanni, is a powerful new graphic novel that looks at the civil war in Sri Lanka, that occured in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. It follows two families as they attempt to survive in their devastated homeland, moving from camp to camp where they are supposed to be safe, but losing family and friends along the way – some to bullets and bombs, and others to enforced recruitment into the Tamil army.

Publisher: New Internationalist
Writer: Benjamin Dix
Artist: Lindsay Pollock
Price: £16.59 from Amazon

Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollack’s graphic novel Vanni, is a powerful and potent look at the affect modern warfare has on the general population of the country in which they fight. The story starts with the family’s humble beginnings and their coastal lifestyle gives you an idea of how their life should have been, which contrasts brilliantly with their life after the tsunami and their enforced relocation to the camp of Vanni.

While the story is not a ‘true story’ it is an amalgamation of storties which Dix has collected during his time working for the UN in Sri Lanka and interviews with those who survived the conflict and sought refuge in the UK and beyond. By combining all these elements into one account, it allows Dix and Pollack to tell a very deliberate and detail heavy story, which allows them to get across the points they need to make about the atrocities these people went through. But also allows them to build characters with believable relationships which make you genuinely care about what they go through.

The graphic novel cites Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis as points of reference and it definitely has that gravity and complexity to it. But the books it reminds us of most were Andrew Donkin and Eoin Colfer’s Illegal. (with which it shares the idea of a fictionalised narrative based on true accounts) and also Guantamo Kid for it’s harrowing but very matter of fact approach to dealing with such a complex tragedy.

While Dix handles the story with subtlelty and intelligence, Pollack’s artwork brings the story to life thanks to a sublime mix of pencil line and grey watercolour washes. He uses tightly panelled pages to really hit home some of the more emotional and intricate moments, and like Jon McNaught in Kingdom he uses these complex pages as a way to focus in on the minutiae of certain moments which can then contrast with more impactful moments such as the tsunami itself. Pollack’s style is cartoony and expressive, but without ever being disrespectful. The characters become instantly familiar while the Sri Lankan countryside is rendered in stunning depth, but so too is the devastation that is delivered upon it.

The greyscale colour scheme does a wonderful job of balancing the personal moments with the horrors of war and the devastation of the tsunami without relying on an obvious colour palette. However, these complex pages and the relative lack of definition in colour, can make some pages tricky to follow (especially those in the jungle with camouflaged soldiers!) and the story can feel a little dry in places as a result of the density of the pages – especially if you are used to more simplistic reads.

Vanni is an emotive and powerful graphic novel, that looks at modern warfare and how families and relationships can be torn apart. It’s slow and deliberate pace is relentless and as the families plight gets more and more difficult you can idneitfy with their stresses as you follow it along with them and feel the tensions rise as their camps get smaller and smaller and their safe areas destroyed by troops.

While the Sri Lankan Civil war may not be a conflict on everyone’s radar Vanni is the kind of graphic novel which brings attention to it in a very accessible and impactful way. It is about more than just a book about Sri Lanka, it’s is bout the horrors and futility of war in the modern age, and the devastating effect that is has on a native population. This could be applied to any modern conflict and is a reminder that even in a civilised world we are still a barbaric species, capable of horrific things. But also of surviving those atrocities, stronger and wiser for it.

A thought-provoking and beautifully told story, this is an extraordinary piece of work that deserves the utmost praisel