Neil Gaiman, Melinda (Hill House, 2005)

Melinda is Neil Gaiman and Polish artist Dagmara Matuzak's first collaboration, and the resulting illustrated poem is a unique literary work. According to the press notes accompanying this release, Gaiman wrote the text specifically for Matuzak to illustrate, hoping for a few drawings and perhaps a painting or two, and she responded with forty-eight stunning black and white drawings and eight colour plates that delineate the harsh world Gaiman's seven year old Melinda inhabits.

Gaiman's text is spare, stark; not a word is wasted, and those that make it to the page are powerfully evocative. The crows flying above Melinda are scarlet and viridian, "as green and red as jungles." Huge steel domes that "trundle thoughtfully" along "pass like beetles of steel and glass." There are "diesel bees" whose "honey tastes of ancient fog" and "electric spiders" that spin "filaments of platinum." Despite these bits of unnatural beauty, Melinda's world is a rough one. Though there is evidence of other humans, of adults, she is alone in a world of machines, rats and wolves. She seeks company with a fish, and in a dying machine that spins yarns -- fairy tales starring robots instead of humans. Melinda dreams of finding adults, though not adults to keep her company or care for her. Rather, she dreams of adults armed to the teeth, who will march behind her. To fight what ? or whom ? we're not told.

There is much that is unsaid in Melinda, but what is presented hints at a rich story of hardships survived and future dangers to overcome. While readers get but a glimpse into Melinda's world, there can be no doubt her world is fully realized in Gaiman and Matuzak's imaginations. The latter's artwork alternates between stark black and white illustrations -- dominated by girders, wires and machinery -- and detailed colour plates with muted hues where the living blends eerily with the mechanical. Much of Melinda's world is shrouded in darkness, hidden in the shadows, and the girl herself seems gritty and hardened, even at such a tender age.

It would be impossible to discuss Melinda without mentioning the physical book itself. Released by Hill House, this limited edition is an oversized hardcover volume actually designed by Matuzak. Each page is quite literally a work of art, beginning with the embossed front cover with its hand-placed colour plate and continuing inside with red-flecked art-quality paper imported from Germany specially for this book. The page numbers are presented uniquely, as part of a machinery cog design at the top of the pages. Each colour plate is set off by a simple black line frame and what appear to be two mechanical hinges, as if the plate were a literal door into Melinda's world, waiting to be opened.

Gaiman and Matuzak have indicated they would like to work together again, a prospect that whets the appetite for many more such delightful collaborations.

[April Gutierrez ]