Hannah Berry’s latest graphic novel centres on a Governmental intrigue involving cloning – there’s been a scandal (a politician is being door-stepped by the paps, another politician has been killed in a traffic accident) and arch figures behind the scenes are pulling strings to orchestrate certain positive outcomes. There are twists, though, elements that let you know that this is not quite right now, not quite right here.
There are two pop stars, for example, Clementine Darling (who graces the cover of the book) and Coral Jerome, who both hate each other (despite having the same management team). Except they’re not quite pop stars, these two, they’re political spokespeople too – so their music informs and educates people about policy changes (except, of course, it doesn’t really – it pushes an agenda and most people accept it). We spend a lot of time in the company of Clementine, as she releases a single, as she records a video, as she starts seeing a new boyfriend (the former boyfriend of Coral – scamdal!) and… there isn’t a lot going on in Clem’s head. She is the proverbial empty vessel. She does what she is told when she is told.
Another pop star, Nina Malick, is more outspoken, pushing at the links between the Government’s attempts at cloning and a mysterious private sector business called Marjorie. Every time she gets close to a nugget of truth attention is diverted (Clementine is pregnant!) and yet, the reader senses, there are people out there (people buying Nina’s records, people attending Nina’s concerts) who want the truth. Or at least Nina’s approximation of it. There are key points in Livestock as politically explicit as David Hare (we’re thinking particularly of the monologue at the end of Denial where Deborah Lipstadt, played by Rachel Weisz, says, “There is such a thing as truth. Slavery happened. The Black Death happened. Elvis is not alive”). In the interplay between Nina and Paul Rourke (Clem and Coral’s shady manager) – “”I’m here to remind people of the sad truth of fossil fuels” / “Just another day of giving people all the things they want to hear about, the things of real interest”, you sense this is what interests Hannah Berry.
Undoubtedly, it’s a very ‘current’ book, dynamic and vibrant, looking to engage with the world as Hannah Berry sees it. It’s the kind of thing we need more of, in a sense. It builds on the promise of Adamtine and suggests Berry is someone who is looking hard at the world and trying to make sense of it. All of these things are good things. And yet it’s not entirely successful either. Part of the reason for this is the pace of the book – it’s all a little pell-mell. You want to say slow down. Reading Livestock is a bit like being three years old, your hand held by a mum in a rush as she barrels through a crowd of shoppers. There are sensations, sure, a glimpse of political intrigue, a snatch of the fantastical, a peep into a skewed world, but it isn’t quite enough. Her characters are cyphers for the tale and they don’t live and breathe. Some of it is due to the framing (Berry makes her pages work hard and so we get seven, nine, ten frames to a page, for page after page – sometimes you want her to break the rhythm, play with larger frames, throw away frames altogether).
The cover quote from Paul Mason calls Livestock a ‘parable for the Trump era’ and there is truth to that but there is also the nagging sensation that this could have been a better book, a bigger book, if it wasn’t in such a rush to get where it’s going.
Any Cop?: Berry continues to show promise and potential and we’ll be interested in seeing what she does next.