Graphic Novel Review: Thoreau and Me

By Sofia Brizio

★ ★ ★ ★

Taling’s debut graphic novel Thoreau and Me is the compelling tale of a Parisian painter who, after reading Thoreau’s Walden and becoming more aware of consumerism and the climate emergency, begins to question his life choices. Incorporating original quotes from Walden into the story, the author masterfully depicts our everyday anxieties around capitalism and its effects on the environment.

As a millennial, this was a particularly meaningful read for me since it not only made me more aware of what can be done to take care of our planet, but it also forced me to realise that it is easy to feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, when really there’s only so much that we as individuals can do. The protagonist Cédric and his middle-class friends all suffer from what the author defines as “white hipster guilt”. They engage in long debates where they discuss which is the best material for candles (not paraffin because it comes from petroleum, nor beeswax as it exploits animals, and definitely not vegetable candles as they contain palm oil). “There’s always the flashlight on your iPhone”, someone suggests as an alternative; but we all know at what cost iPhones are made.

It’s easy to see how these are thoughts we tend to drift away from, because they make us feel uncomfortable and helpless in our fight against something that is bigger than us. I’m not saying that nothing can be done about climate change, because there’s no denying that each and every one of us can play their part by taking up small but significant habits, such as switching to reusable water bottles or shopping bags. What I’m saying is, it is often difficult to draw the line between extreme eco-anxiety, the desire to make everything in your power to save the planet, and understanding that ultimately we are only human, and only a collective and organised effort could save us.

In these troubling times, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Thoreau and Me is truly a godsend, allowing us to pause and reflect on how capitalism has led us to view the nature of our planet as something inherently evil. But, as Thoreau says, it is when capitalism is forced to a halt for the sake of survival that we are given an opportunity to go back to our roots and understand that “nature is not hostile”. Recent news reports on wildlife returning to empty cities and pollution gradually decreasing are testament to nature’s ability to provide for us and for itself, and to regenerate itself if only we allow it.

While I found some of the solution proposed in Thoreau and Me (such as leaving life in the city to build a cabin in the woods) to be quite utopian and largely a matter of social class and who has the money to afford ethical life choices, I am convinced that this book is extremely valuable and relatable. The grotesque style of the drawings is instrumental in conveying the feeling of anxiety and constant struggle that pervades the protagonist from start to finish. Although the translation from French is slightly awkward at times, Thoreau and Me makes an overall pleasant and thought-provoking read.

If you find yourself riddled with eco-anxiety and worried about the future in these times of uncertainty, this book will definitely provide some relief, while also stressing that we must never stop thinking about our planet, because the time to act is now.

Thoreau and Me is a novel by Cédric Taling. Translated from French by Edward Gauvin. Published by SelfMadeHero, 128pp paperback, full colour, RRP £14.99.