Book Review / Drawing Sybylla by Odette Kelada

Jan Allerton reviews Drawing Sybylla by Odette Kelada, a novel which combines fantasy, poetry and humour.

Drawing Sybylla by Odette Kelada, takes us beyond the study of ‘courage, suppression and creative freedom’ into layers of fantasy and poetry. We navigate the trials of five women, each in different situations but all longing for some form of equality or selfhood that will allow them to write. A sixth journey is revealed as we see the narrator’s story develop over the course of the book.

After a striking opening—a short scene weighed with classical references—the plot’s structure separates each story from the next with an intervening chapter. These chapters are more than explanations, wherein the narrator finds herself with the mysterious spirit character Sybylla, a magical, charming enchanter—part guide, mother and sorcerer, who leads us through dream-like events. The narrator’s reactions highlight the confusion, despair, hope and dreams of each of the women. Sybylla’s magic links with and hints at a multitude of questions, themes and possible paths for them to take.

At a festival, the narrator, a writer herself, listens to ‘Sybil Jones’ read from her book The Yellow Wallpaper. The narrator draws (“…my mind is dribbling now”) as her startling imagination fills out the yellow wallpaper with people, emotions and fantastical images, until she herself becomes part of it. The reader is swept into her irreverent and vibrant mind bulging with history, classical references, poetry, and written art.

What elevates the book more and gives it unique character is the vivid imagery, the emotional perception, and the evocative poetry. The reader must engage with the book with a mind in visual mode:

“…vines strangling necks and taking ‘off all over the page’.”

There is poetry in verse:

“…I’ll open wide and all my bones prick your jelly eyes.”

The verse poetry was evocative and readable:

“All the sailors who have boarded me with desire must drown,
their skulls smooth like mine,
crack in time to the splintering of my whalebone heart.”

I then found myself reading on three levels—the heroine of the story being discussed by the author, the person and style of the author, and the reactions of the artist-narrator, enmeshed in her own reactions and life situation.

This novel raises an awareness of the history around the roles women play which go against their needs as independent individuals, whilst also touching on other themes—the nature of writing and a writer’s personal involvement. But most of all, Drawing Sybylla is a book filled with brilliant writing gems encased in a magical gift box of imagery, fantasy, poetry, wisdom, cynicism and wonderful humour.

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