We are delighted to join the Nonfiction Picture Book meme 2018 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year, when we can.
This was the last book I read in 2017 (and went into my first book read in 2018 on Goodreads) – perfect for our current reading theme.
Written and Illustrated by Lauren Redniss
Published by It Books (2010)
Borrowed through inter-library loan from Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
I am a social scientist by training, a humanist by choice, and a bonafide literary nut (this last one is beyond me, it is simply who I am). I don’t normally gravitate towards scientifically-themed stories for my personal, recreational, light reading – mostly because I am already swimming in academic treatises, manuscripts, journal articles for my ‘day job.’ Yet, there are some novels that simply call out to you, and you have to heed its siren call. Such was this novel for me.
This is a book that defies easy classification – I can not call it a graphic novel biography – because it doesn’t follow the usual comic book format. Just like Brian Selznick, Lauren Redniss carves a niche all her own in literature with this non-fiction, historical, thoroughly researched account of the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie, crafted with such meticulous detail that defies easy description.
Much of the nitty-gritty of the scientific aspects of the novel escaped me – and this is not due to Redniss’ inability to convey the lofty ideas in an accessible manner, I chalk it up to my own ignorance of physics. Yet what remains ‘luminous’ throughout is Marie Curie’s life story – her unapologetic brilliance, steadfastness, and unwavering dedication to the wonders of scientific discovery – that it seemed almost like a guilty pleasure. There is childlike fascination with polonium and radium that seemed almost like a giddy love affair; such wide-eyed, almost naive desire to unearth all its secrets, that their deliberate close encounters with these elements eventually caused the gradual demise of this powerhouse couple.
Then there is Redniss’ chosen medium. In her Afterword, she wrote a one-page description on “cyanotype printing” that is a painstaking four-part process that begins with her black and white drawings, coming up with a transparency of the drawing, then rendering it into a cyanotype print, before finally graduating to a hand-colored cyanotype print.
Thus, the drawings seem to have an ethereal glow, akin to X-ray transparencies, but with the soul of the narrative intact, like nuggets of truth immortalized in a page. While there is skilful documentation of the Curies’ scientific accomplishments, this book is also a testament to their love affair, cut painfully short with Pierre Curie’s tragic death after he was trampled by a horse-drawn carriage, his brain splattered in the Parisian streets.
“My Pierre, I got up after having slept rather well, relatively calm. That was barely a quarter of an hour ago, and now I want to howl again – like a savage beast”.
To say that Marie was devastated by her husband’s death would be an understatement. Redniss was able to include extracts from Marie’s journals to characterize vividly what she went through during this difficult time. I felt that it was done in a way that honoured the Curies’ memory and experience, a living representation of the grieving wife who lost her husband – and the life they once shared as a couple.
Marie was able to pick up the pieces of her life and that of her family’s eventually – and continued on her work that changed the face of science. She found another love in the person of Paul Langevin, also a star scientist, a few years her junior. It would have been a match made in heaven, except for the minor fact that Langevin was married, even if unhappily at that.
The image above shows just how brilliantly the entire book has been laid out – nothing has been left to chance, not the typography, not the design, not the narrative content. Everything has been lovingly crafted with an eye for detail, beauty, and an aesthetic that is, hands-down, unparalleled. This romantic dalliance almost caused Marie her until-then-untarnished reputation as a scientist, and even a Nobel prize.
“There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.”
She became known for this quote whereby she demanded a separation between what goes on in her private affairs and her scientific discoveries, which for a time, were put into question, as she was deemed amoral, her entire credibility and character perceived as too scandalous for comfort.
Then the war happened. And everything was brought back into perspective, especially given Marie’s unfailing efforts to help out those who are sick through her mobile X-ray facilities, known as “petites Curies.” The effect of radium, however, in Marie’s constitution would eventually catch up with her, as she slowly wasted away, dying in 1934 from “aplastic pernicious anemia.”
Redniss’ narrative also jumps from one historical timeline to another – as on the one hand, there is a sharing of the tragic devastation of Chernobyl and the Hiroshima bombing, then moving back to the Curies’ life narrative, then to a few interesting asides that are tangentially connected to the impact of the Curies’ scientific work. One especially absorbing side narrative is the quote attributed to Douglas Hofstadter, a cognitive scientist, who spoke eloquently about love and the brain. Allow me to end this overly-long feature of the book with this excerpt:
… the key question is, no matter how much you absorb of another person, can you have absorbed so much of them that when that primary brain perishes, you can feel that person did not totally perish from the earth… because they live on in a ‘second neural home’?.. In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of those who were dearest to them…
This is a one-of-a-kind biography that deserves to be in anyone’s library. Find it now and experience it for yourself. For those who are interested to know more about Marie Curie, here is a video documentary on her life that I found on Youtube. Enjoy!
#LitWorld2018GB Update: 4 of 40 (France – Marie Curie’s adopted country)