five woundsAllen & Unwin, 2010
9781742370132 (Aus, US, UK)

To call your novel ‘illuminated’ is a dangerous thing. Five Wounds‘ claim holds with it the expectation that it should be something beyond a typical read. An ‘illuminated novel’ must be more than novel: no minor feat, and no small promise.

I am glad to say that in this case the big claims are lived up to. Five Wounds would suffer and wail as a trade paperback, and it is no coincidence that both author and illustrator are listed with equal merit on its cover. The book lives through its words and breathes through its pictures – one is inseparable from the other. Like the five intertwining stories of its main characters, so too do the different forms of the narrative intertwine into one powerful hydra of a novel.

And it is quite an entity. The characters that make up Five Wounds are intensely varied, yet as the narrative unfolds they come closer and closer together. My absolute favourites were Gabriella, the angel left butchered and broken with an indecipherable prophecy; and Cuckoo, the man with a wax face, able to shape and mould to any identity, and yet unable to find his own. The tales are all unique and strange, and the unique and strange book that they find themselves in suits them perfectly.

The story itself is a beautifully written and illustrated journey, but for me what made the novel truly ‘illuminated’ was the way in which the book refused to settle. Five Wounds is no summer beach distraction, it’s an intensely involved reading experience. I found myself spotting obscure references to literature both ancient and modern in every section, and then began calling up students of Latin and other languages trying to decipher the various messages contained in the pictures and chapter headings of the novel. For me the journey of reading the book was one of active problem-solving and code-breaking, and not only is this no bad thing; judging by the novel’s curious annotations, edits, and conflicting final chapters, I think it is also absolutely the intention of its authors.

Five Wounds is not the sort of book that will appeal to everyone, and nor is everyone up to the task of reading it. It is bold, bizarre and confusing from start to finish. But for those who will take its challenge the book is a truly unique project, and its reading reaps truly unique rewards. It is a beautiful and worthy piece of art, and with each stripping back, the heart of its mystery becomes more and more elusive, and yet more and more meaningful. Perhaps I will never uncover all of its secrets, but I have nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

lyndonriggall_utasdebateLyndon Riggall is an avid sci-fi, fantasy and horror reader, and an aspiring writer. He collects his thoughts on life and books on his blog and on Twitter. He is not, to the best of his knowledge, illuminated in any way.