Review: Sally Jane Thompson’s Atomic Sheep… ignore the title, love the book..
New school, new, stricter rules, new uniform, 16-year old Tamrika hates them all.
Poor thing has just found out that she’s going to be uprooted from her contented life by well-meaning parents who want to ship her off to their old boarding school, Chessington Academy, miles from friends, miles from family, on her own for the first time in her life. She’s just got one short summer and then it’s straight into her first term.
Life basically sucks for Tamrika. Thankfully Atomic Sheep is quite the opposite.
Atomic Sheep is a really well done new-school story, a familiar theme made fresh by the gentle characterisations of Thompson creating a genuine, likeable, fully-formed young main character, all in lush chocolate brown shades that give the book a fresh, gentle look.
Thompson was a name I’d heard of, but not one I’d read much of. We showcased her work a little while back on the blog, lovely artwork, simple yet expressive, a modern look, Western Manga, taking the best elements of Manga; the pacing, the stylistic flourishes, the willingness to use the art to express character, and mixing it with influences closer to home. There’s bits of Jaime Hernandez here, I’m seeing a lot of Philip Bond et al, and no doubt you’ll be able to add you own reference as well, and that’s absolutely fine, since Thompson takes all her influences, moulds them, uses them, builds on them, and creates something very much of herself.
Creatively this is your standard issue new-school tale, one told over and over, continually fascinating to young and old alike, an experience we can all vividly remember, no matter what our age. The isolation of boarding school allowing children the fantasy of independence and freedom from parental interference.
Tamrika’s Mom and Dad are doing what they think is for the best, they’ve been scrimping and saving for years, cutting back to give their daughter the benefit of the private school they went to, where they first met, irrespective of whether it will be a good fit for their child, constrained as they are by tradition and sentiment.
Tamrika may initially be angry and upset but we see some of the character of the girl when she begins to confront Mom about what she’s done and then reigns her feelings in, considerate and empathetic, realising the sacrifice and the well-meaning intent behind their actions and reigns her anger in…
That’s a moment right there. Something as simple as a ‘me too ‘ that actually delivers so much, the emotionally charged moment covered so simply. Atomic Sheep does this throughout, subtle moments that build character, allow us readers to slowly and gently build a true picture of the girl; independent, friendly, strong willed, a genuinely nice person. She’s also that little bit of a rebel, something that Chessington Academy doesn’t seem too keen on.
But despite the strict regimen of the school – no unnatural hair colours means Tamrika’s reaching for the hair dye to take her highlights out before she goes and the two piercings per ear has her worrying the rest will close up – she’s still marked out as something of the rebel in a beautifully underplayed scene on the morning of her first day where Tamrika’s careful reading of the school rules allows that little dash of non-conformity to shine through….
“Ah, guy’s uniform“, A little moment perhaps, but again it’s all part of the character building moments Thompson does very well, ever so effective at revealing little bits of Tamrika’s nature.
Tamrika suffers greatly at first from new-girl syndrome, especially one sent to a new school in those last couple of essential school years where friendship groups are so firmly established, miles from family and friends, alone to create her own path through the troubles of teen life.
Thankfully, after a rocky start she settles down to life at the school, initially difficult room-mate encounters prove temporary, and she begins to find her feet. Friendships, school work, even boys come into the mix, most of them through the Art Club she’s instrumental in setting up, after the school proves so resistant to proper arts teaching, her first art lesson being a chem master sitting with his paper whilst the class draw et another still life, yet more fruit, boring, boring, boring art.
Initially I was a little underwhelmed with Atomic Sheep, feeling Thompson was underplaying the emotional upheaval her young character was going through, I felt we needed to see a little more of her pain. But a beautifully simple scene in chapter two made me realise I was wrong and Thompson was right….
At first it seemed incongruous, an emotional moment out of the blue. But I quickly realised it’s actually very real, very true, exactly the sort of reaction I’d have if I were in the same position at her age; weeks of bottling it all up, not wanting to embaress myself in front of prospective new friends and a still not quite friends room-mate, only letting the emotions out when feeling safe and alone in bed. But even then, the tears are near silent, sobbing into the pillow to keep from waking the room-mate up.
The chocolate browns in so many shades really add to the look of Atomic Sheep, softening Thompson’s already organic and rounded art, developed over the course of her young years, an early Manga influence visible but refined, often after extensive re-drawing as the years affected her style.
The one very obvious, but well utilised Manga stylistic touch is the use of near Chibli cuteness at times to add emphasis (Chibli being the exaggeratedly cute short, round character representations used in comedy Manga). Thompson deploys it sparingly but that merely means we appreciate it all the more.
The back-matter to end the book is a fascinating look at Thompson’s process, and a glimpse into the inherent problems of a book’s creation coinciding with the white heat of creative change found in the author’s development from teen to twenty-something. Us oldies don’t worry so much about this, but at the time of creating Atomic Sheep, Thompson was in that youthful creative heat of her late teens, early twenties, the book forming in her undergraduate years, and developing in her post-grad years. She talks of the process being akin to collaborating with herself, creative tensions across the years. It’s fascinating seeing her talk of this in the afterword, but there’s very little evidence of the conflict in the actual book.
In the end, Atomic Sheep tells a lovely tale of youthful expression, a sweet and very real look at youth realised on the comic page. Thompson is definitely one to watch.
As for that title, and the sheep on the cover…. your guess is as good as mine. I was torn between wanting to find out and being content to draw my own conclusions. I must ask her about it sometime.