Fanny Britt is well known in her native Quebec as a translator, playwright, and children’s author. The first of her books to be translated into English, Jane, the Fox and Me, is also Britt’s first foray into the graphic-novel genre. She’s fortunate to be supported in this endeavor by Isabelle Arsenault, whose beguiling illustrations for Kyo Maclear’s Virginia Wolf deservedly won a Governor General’s Literary Award last year.
Set in Montreal, the story is told from the point of view of Hélène, a young girl who lives in a shabby duplex with her overworked mother and two brothers. At school, the girls who used to be her friends have, for unknown reasons, suddenly morphed into bullies. Their teasing mostly focuses on Hélène’s weight – which is mystifying given that Arsenault depicts her as quite slim – but she takes the insults enough to heart that buying a bathing suit with her mother becomes an exercise in humiliation.
The copy of Jane Eyre Hélène reads every day on the bus is her only escape from these daily tortures, something Arsenault reinforces by rendering Hélène’s world in smudgy greys, while scenes from Jane Eyre are done in warm, gently hued watercolours. On a dreaded camping trip with her school, a chance encounter with a fox eventually leads Hélène to fellow outcast Géraldine, who becomes her best friend and salvation.
Visually, the novel dazzles. Arsenault is as adept at rendering Montreal streetscapes as she is at capturing subtle emotional exchanges. Story-wise, it mostly works, too, though the Jane Eyre theme gets stretched a tad farther than it needs to go; the parallels between Brontë’s novel and Hélène’s situation aren’t as obvious as Britt seems to think they are. However, as an object lesson in the merits of quality over quantity when it comes to friendship, Jane, the Fox and Me charms and satisfies.