Kate Gavino came to prominence as the creator of the blog (and subsequent book) Last Night’s Reading where she compiles her illustrations and favourite quotes from the many book readings she attends. Last month saw the publication of her second book Sanpaku via BOOM! Studios’ Archaia imprint, a coming-of-age story inspired by her own Filipino Catholic upbringing that centres on a very specific cultural reference point and employs a most distinctive method of presentational delivery.
Sanpaku focuses on central character Marcine, a twelve-year-old schoolgirl who, through her grandmother, becomes obsessed with the titular Japanese superstition that seeing the white around the iris of the eye is a bad omen. She grows gradually obsessed with the idea, fixating on the relatives, friends and celebrities who have it while also researching the condition and the diets that supposedly stave it off.
Marcine’s fascination with Sanpaku, though, has a deeper resonance. It’s essentially her way of making sense of a world that is changing around her as she makes the transition from childhood to adolescence. She latches on to it as a singular truth in an existence that has suddenly become less sure, less recognisable. Having to cope with losing her grandmother and the growing sexual awareness of her impending teenage years, Marcine must also deal with the impact of the death of singer Selena, religious divides in the community, her new part-time job spotting the shoplifters in her local store, and what the revelations about a potential local candidate for sainthood mean to her. And in amongst all that she must also find time to teach her friends how to avoid the dreaded Sanpaku as well…
Books like Sanpaku remind us that, while our specific cultural touchstones may differ significantly, certain rites of passage remain fundamentally universal in the way we experience them. This is a quietly touching tale that will take readers back directly to the advent of their teens and remind them how confusing the world suddenly became in those years. Gavino’s art is uncomplicated but relatable, using full-panel pages with patterned backgrounds that have a slightly hypnotic quality while also giving the book a jaunty sense of pacing.
That’s important because, for all the social commentary and poignant observations Gavino makes about growing up and moving on, Sanpaku is also a very funny book. From the group of shoplifting elders and the Wall of Shame in the store through to Marcine’s bleakly humorous observations about her environment, Sanpaku is as amusing as it is insightful. Another strong offering from BOOM! Studios’ frankly criminally under-rated Archaia imprint, Sanpaku will inspire awkward laughter and knowing nods of recognition in equal measure…
Kate Gavino (W/A) • Archaia/BOOM! Studios, $24.99
Review by Andy Oliver