London, 1944. 19 year old Harry Black has fallen out with his brother and father due to his stance as a conscientious objector. Harry does his bit for the war effort by working as a firefighter, as well as documenting the horrors and banalities of war through his writing and drawing - trying to make sense of a world gone mad. Ellis, his older brother, has been injured on duty and is in London to recuperate before, he hopes, getting back out there to fight. Shortly after catching up with Ellis in a pub, Harry is on the bus home when a bomb falls and destroys the pub with Ellis still in it. Harry himself suffers a severe head wound and is taken to hospital, where he meets fellow patient Agatha, a 14 year old German Jewish refugee looking for her parents. Convinced that his brother is still alive, Harry and Agatha strike up a friendship and agree to help each other find their missing relatives. But to do so they must risk everything and, under a heavily bombed London, find a way into the Underworld - with a little help from Orpheus.
Written by brothers Marcus and Julian Sedgwick and illustrated by Alexis Deacon, Voyages In The Underworld of Orpheus Black is heartbreaking, surreal and sumptuous to look at. It is a beautiful, haunting and unusual novel blending prose, verse and illustration. Told through Harry’s journal entries (words and pictures) interspersed with poetic narration from Orpheus, the story is a reflection on the horrors of war and of the power of art, told through the lens of Greek mythology. There is a lot here for readers to unpick - mythology, war, life and death, love and hate, family, poetry and art.
The book is not always an easy read. The poetry has an oblique and dreamlike quality to it, and Harry’s fevered state makes him an increasingly unreliable narrator, but the interplay between the poetry and the journal entries helps build the mythic atmosphere.
And that ending - oh, my heart! This is definitely one I will be thinking about for a long time to come.