Building a haunting tale around the life of the teenage Grand Duchess Anastasia, the daughter of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II, The Gift merges historical events with the stark isolation of The Shining and more than a hint of the lurking otherworldliness of an M.R. James ghost story.
On her fifteenth birthday Anastasia is mysteriously gifted a camera from an unknown benefactor. As she uses it to capture moments around her palace home she becomes aware of a strange presence just outside of her direct perception, seemingly linked to the camera itself. At the same time she begins having eerie dreams of a field of long grass and an ominous watching figure. Meanwhile events in Russia are conspiring to change the lives of the Romanovs forever, as preternatural foreboding and the inevitable weight of history slowly begin to converge…
Zoe Maeve’s The Gift is an unsettlingly atmospheric graphic novella from Canadian publisher Conundrum Press, whose output is always delightfully unpredictable. Maeve’s story is expertly paced; feelings of brooding tension and inescapable fate are constant companions throughout our time with Anastasia. The poignant and pointed mismatch of the extravagant and the solitary in her life only add to this. Sumptuous meals and luxurious surroundings in the early sequences underlining the loneliness and emptiness of her existence otherwise.
Maeve’s use of frigid blue tones and white space emphasises a world that is cold and harsh in emotional climate as well as a literal one. While Anastasia narrates her own story Maeve intuitively knows when to step back and let her visual storytelling embody the intensity of events. There’s such a beautifully melancholic realisation of environment in The Gift. Multi-perspective panels placed on larger backgrounds to communicate place, space and time, and individual artefacts showcased in single panels giving us cultural and historical references that feed into the greater narrative whole. Both quietly understated and yet chillingly ominous in tone, The Gift is a disquieting journey into pseudo-history.
Zoe Maeve (W/A) • Conundrum Press, $18.00
Review by Andy Oliver