A Taste of Chlorine, By Bastien Vivès

A small love story makes a big splash
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The Independent Culture

Howsoever we cut it, graphic novels remain something of a derided form among the chattering classes.

You wouldn't expect a fan of, say, Sebastian Faulks to find himself distracted by what Craig Thompson or Daniel Clowes is getting up to at the moment. And yet, every once in a while, a graphic novel comes along that warrants the kind of attention more typically bestowed upon the likes of the Booker shortlist. Bastien Vivès's A Taste of Chlorine is one such book.

Set largely within the confines of an enormous municipal swimming pool, A Taste of Chlorine is a gentle love story, albeit refracted through the cerulean world conjured up by David Hockney in his swimming pool paintings. A young man suffering from curvature of the spine is advised by his chiropractor to take up swimming. Within the strange, tiled high rise, he lurks at the pool's edge, watching people as much as swimming, an unfamiliar alien figuratively and literally out of his depth. It is during one such bout of people watching that he catches the eye of a lithe young woman and a soft, nuanced friendship begins.

Much of A Taste of Chlorine is wordless. Vivès progresses the plot by serialising movement and expression. A mouthy friend, brought in we suspect to elicit an introduction to the beautiful swimmer, is quickly dispatched. This is an internal world as much as it is a place of hard lines and shifting perspectives. Much as in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours Blue, the swimming pool becomes an idealised place in which people travel alongside one another asking the kinds of questions usually reserved for a 3am wind-down. (The hero asks his swimmer friend at one point, "Have you ever asked yourself, what am I prepared to die for, what would I never let go of?")

The winner of the "Revelation" prize at the 2009 Angouleme Festival of Comics, Vivès' book manages to combine the unspoken yearning of Lost in Translation (particularly the underwater message mouthed at the close of the book) with the low-key detail of a film-maker such as Tom McCarthy. What's more, the art is such that you'll frequently find yourself stopping to admire the beauty of a single frame. Highly recommended.

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