A poignant, beautifully drawn read

Beautifully illustrated in stark black and white, this debut graphic novel by Dutch writer Aimée de Jongh takes on the big topics: friendship, trauma, bullying and even the strain of running a small bookstore.

First published in Dutch as De Terugkeer van de Wespendief in 2014, the English translation, The Return of the Honey Buzzard, was published two years later.

The story follows Simon, the stressed-out owner of a bookstore he inherited from his father, as he copes with the emotional toil of witnessing a horrific event as an adult, which brings up memories of a terrible experience he had as a child.

His wife and co-owner, Laura, wants to sell the shop to a bookstore chain, and it takes a chance encounter with a university student for Simon to deal with his past traumas and present circumstance.

The work takes its title from the migratory patterns of the European honey buzzard, which pairs for life but migrates from as far north as Siberia to as far south as South Africa separately, meeting again to mate.

De Jongh’s book is wonderfully drawn. The sharpness of the images reflects back the pointedness of the story. It won the St. Michael’s Prize in 2015 for Best Dutch Comic Book.

The subject matter is challenging to read at times, but de Jongh balances the difficulties with tenderness and smartly explores how early traumas can impact us for our entire lives.

Overall the plot is powerful, though at times it falls short of its ambitious aims. Simon’s relationship with his wife is underexplored while his relationship with a mysterious young woman takes an outsized role in the story.

Readers might be more familiar with de Jongh’s work from the daily comic series Snippers which appeared in the newspaper Metro for five years. Since The Return of the Honey Buzzard was published, de Jongh has published several more graphic novels, including Europe’s Waiting Room, a 2017 journalistic work that explores the experiences of people living in refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos.

The Return of the Honey Buzzard was translated from Dutch by Michelle Hutchison, who shared the 2020 International Booker Prize with Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for The Discomfort of Evening. Hutchison’s translation of that famed book was impressive, but there are moments in the graphic novel where some word choices miss the mark.

In 2017, De Terugkeer van de Wespendief was adapted into a movie that appeared on NPO3.

While The Return of the Honey Buzzard isn’t a perfect work, it’s a challenging and enjoyable read, accompanied by stellar art. You can buy your copy at the American Book Center.

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