Our perception of the world around us is infinitely more powerful than reality itself. We convince ourselves of how things are or how they should be, but rarely does this carefully constructed narrative match those of other people.
In his new graphic novel, A Thousand Coloured Castles, Gareth Brookes explores the conflict between perception and reality, and how the former will always cloud our experience of the latter. Using chalks and crayons, as well as panels that evolve in colour and form, Brookes creates a kaleidoscopic experience that is full of humour and disquietude.
Myriam is an elderly woman whose life is interrupted by the appearance of visions that begin to follow her everywhere. Objects are manipulated and distorted; people, animals and structures appear, growing in both size and number. As she tries to make sense of her unpredictable environment, she sees a boy being held captive in her neighbour’s house.
Convinced something is deeply wrong, she tries to investigate, much to the dismay of her husband Fred. Highly critical of Myriam and everyone else, Fred is convinced that his wife is “barmy”, showing little patience or tolerance for her precarious mental state.
We still don’t see many books that explore elderly characters or how aging affects the body and mind over a longer period of time. From the first page, Brookes presents Myriam and Fred as characters whose best years are behind them, worrying about changes in society and reminiscing about simpler times.
Fred’s view of the world is extremely negative. He controls his environment through his trite insults and general dissatisfaction. If there’s a silence, he feels compelled to fill it with observations, convinced that his reality is genuine and unfiltered.
Reading A Thousand Coloured Castles, especially Brookes’ characterisation of Fred, brings to mind the verse from William Blake’s poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.” Fred has closed himself up, narrowing his perspective, offering only disappointed comments about TV, what women should wear, and what he thinks is good for Myriam.
Myriam’s experience, however, couldn’t be more different. Her hallucinations, arresting as they might be, open her up to the possibilities of her perception. They are rhapsodic and confusing, evolving with her moods and the stresses in her life. She will be certain of seeing a budgie in a tree, only to be berated by Fred for making things up. When she leaves the house a car is engulfed in flames.
Brookes uses these images to fill the story with visual metaphors that reflect Myriam’s emotions. He juxtaposes ideas of freedom and ascension with imprisonment, making her see soldiers with ladders on their heads, an array of birds, and the titular castles that wind through the air; these visions are stretching the aforementioned doors of perception, but when she feels judged by Fred, she sees a brick wall blocking her way. It takes great courage for Myriam to accept that it doesn’t exist and pass through it.
Brookes also contrasts absurdity with realism, even within Myriam’s psychedelic hallucinations. As her condition worsens, instead of strange creatures appearing around her, her perception of everyday objects becomes warped. Items of clothing and door handles multiply and morph like something out of a Salvador Dali painting, and she becomes too confused to decipher between real and imaginary.
The same applies to his use of language. Fred and their daughter Claire are set in their ways, quick to blame Myriam for her condition and behaviour instead of trying to understand her. Brookes uses a motif of these two constantly saying things have gone “down the drain”, an abstract image associated with banal things. Just as a day cannot literally go down a drain, neither can Fred and Claire separate themselves from their absurd perception of Myriam.
An interesting meta-narrative runs through A Thousand Coloured Castles. Brookes draws without faces, forcing us to project our own emotional assumptions onto each character. When Myriam sees these hallucinations for the first time only for them to disappear, we experience the same disorientation that she does.
For Fred, Brookes adapts the panels to focus on the intense minutiae of his routine. Every cup of tea and boiled egg is meticulously chronicled, increasing from four panels per page to 12. His methodical and repetitive routine is a mirror of his opinionated nature; he believes he knows exactly how everything should be done. His perception is reality, and Myriam no longer abides the rules of his narrative.
It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Myriam is suffering from Charles Bonnet syndrome, a condition where hallucinations appear to the sufferer but they are able to distinguish them from reality, just because of how strange they are. But if she can see them as clearly as she sees her husband or her grandson, they must be real enough to merit taking seriously. All that is required from other people is a sliver of empathy and an open mind about the reality of perception.