Family Secrets

The Unknown

By Heather Leighton

A review of The Unknown by Anna Sommer

Published on July 23, 2020

Born in Aarau, Switzerland, cartoonist Anna Sommer is the force behind The Unknown, translated from the German by Helge Dascher. The Unknown is Sommer’s fifth book, which was showcased as part of the 2018 Official Selection of Angoulême, France’s internationally renowned comics festival. This is no small feat, given that only five women cartoonists were among the forty-five bédéistes in the Official Selection.

Anna Sommer trained as a graphic artist and is known for her decoupage and illustrations, which have appeared in many European publications. The cartoonist presents her story in borderless black-and-white drawings without any texture or shading. The narrative alternates between the world of Helen and that of Wanda and Vicky. Sommer should be applauded for giving her women characters realistic body types.

The Unknown begins during the holiday season, with forty-something Helen discove ing a newborn in her boutique dressing room. In the past, Helen and her husband had once considered adoption. Helen assumes the child’s mother will come back and keeps the newborn in her backroom, initially in a large cardboard box with clothing for blankets. She quickly becomes attached to the infant, whom she names Sylvester, but she keeps his existence a secret from everyone, including her husband, Paul. When Helen raises the topic of adoption again, Paul tells her that they are too old for a baby. As a substitute, he gets Helen a dog. When Paul discovers Sylvester’s existence seven months later, he tells Helen that he wants the child gone. Heartbroken, Helen abandons the child in a food court.

The Unknown
Anna Sommer
Translated by Helge Dascher

Conundrum Press
$17.00
paper
104pp
9781772620474

Vicky and Wanda are boarding school roommates. Wanda convinces Vicky to turn tricks with her for extra money. The reader later learns that Vicky had an affair with their history teacher and is pregnant, something she attempts several times to sabotage but ultimately carries to term. Vicky binge- eats to put on weight so no one will suspect she is pregnant. Helen and Vicky are connected in more ways than one, which leads to pain and sorrow for both.

Sommer makes her readers piece together Helen and Vicky’s connections. For readers who like puzzles, they will enjoy going through the book a number of times to check for clues. One of the first things the reader will do to make sense of the story is put together a timeline. However, the reader should be prepared for some distractions and ploys along the way. For starters, Sommer relies on the sensationalism of delivering a baby in a change room, teen prostitution, and child abandonment as a distraction technique.

In terms of ploys, we know that Sylvester is found in Helen’s dressing room between Christmas and New Year’s, covered in afterbirth with his umbilical cord still attached. Yet, after receiving a Christmas present from her father, Vicky has the misfortune of having her water break in a park while a fountain is still running. In addition, when Helen abandons Sylvester at seven months, she is wearing boots, a coat, sunglasses, and a scarf on her head, the same scarf she wore throughout the winter, even though it is ostensibly July.

While The Unknown definitely has a satisfying “aha” moment, readers who have experience with newborns will be expected to suspend their belief to get through the story. As many new parents know, time can also be measured by a baby’s milestones. When Helen finds Sylvester in her dressing room, the newborn is already able to hold up his head, something that usually doesn’t happen until a baby is at least a month old. Most newborns also need to feed about eight to twelve times in twenty-four hours and rarely sleep more than a few hours at a time. Yet Helen leaves the newborn in a cardboard box, goes out for dinner and returns only once that night for a feeding. When Helen replaces the box with a crib, the baby is able to pull himself up, although that milestone doesn’t take place until about nine to twelve months. But, as we know, Helen abandons Sylvester at seven months. Sommer has possibly considered that most of her audience will not yet be parents or are only vaguely aware of these milestones.

While Sommer has put in a lot of effort into cleverly devising her stratagem with time and other distractions, her story will not be appreciated by all. An audience familiar with the milestones of a baby may find that The Unknown boils down to a story that just can’t be believed. mRb

Heather Leighton blogs at The Unexpected Twists and Turns. She has written for The Globe and Mail and The Comics Journal.

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