A House Without Windows

Marc Ellison and Didier Kassai

Life Drawn, £16.99

Review by David Pratt

On one level I’m already intimately acquainted with the lives depicted in this phenomenally powerful little book. Across sub-Saharan Africa from South Sudan to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia to Liberia and beyond I’ve repeatedly over the past decades met the sort of children whose stories form the narrative thread on which the authors here focus.

This is the world of street children, child labourers, those caught up in unrelenting poverty, unspeakable violence, cruelty, and conflict. Familiar as these stories are to me, I’ve never yet been to the Central African Republic (CAR), where this book is set.

In the absence of such a visit, I can think of few better ways to begin to familiarise oneself with the travails of this long under-reported country in crisis than through the rich linear artwork of Didier Kassai and Marc Ellison’s eloquent words and photographs in this aptly titled volume, A House Without Windows.

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I say aptly titled because the expression comes from the words of Aude Thomet, an aid worker interviewed in the book who describes CAR as “a house without windows”, which effectively prevents those of us who are outside being able to look inside CAR and grasp any understanding of its suffering.

While geopolitics might form the backdrop to CAR’s troubles, what this book does is burrow down in a humane way to its impact on the lives of ordinary folk, especially children. These are youngsters whose childhoods, as author Ellison says in the book’s short preface, have been “interrupted" or “lost”.

The book is divided into three chapters and the interviews are rendered in visual "comic book" form, be it the harrowing tales of children living on the streets of the capital city Bangui, enduring the backbreaking work of artisanal diamond mining, or those seeking sanctuary in camps for the displaced or with organisations who can offer safety for children who have been abused or neglected.

If this sounds overly bleak, then rest assured those subjects are handled with real sensitivity by the authors. The text is candid and poignant when it must be, but in the main very gentle and insightful and never intrusive.

At first glance, the hybrid use of words, comic book graphics and photography might seem like too many ingredients, but they enable the reader to not only understand the lives of the people depicted but also how the authors went about their business in engaging with them. In short, it works.

Graphic novels like this, born out of the tradition of great work by the likes of Maltese-American cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco, open up a whole new means of accessibility to readers of all ages. Sacco’s books on Palestine and Bosnia revealed complex political issues to readers in a way mainstream books often cannot.

Their success is not just a result of their format, but the fact they focus on lives each and every one of us can relate to. These are the sort of books we should see much more of in schools and within families. A House Without Windows is a great addition to the genre and I thoroughly recommend it.

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