My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Beautifully complex and dark, The Liszts is a picture book that stands at the edge of a thousand different classifications. It’s poetry, it’s art, it’s story, and throughout all of that, it’s a quiet instruction to value the arrival of the unexpected and the different within your life. The Liszt family make lists: “lists most usual / and lists most unusual”. These may range from “lists of dreaded chores / and small winged insects” through to “lists that went on for 31 pges / lists to quiet the swirl of his midnight mind”. One day a “visitor” arrives and makes friends with Edward, the middle child. The two of them find a friendship in each other centred around questions delivered in vibrant, thick capitals: “Does anyone own the moon or the sky? / Where do my thoughts come from?”. The book ends with an echo of the opening, “The Liszts kept making lists. Scritch, scractch, / They made lists most usual. And lists most unusual” but this time, the visitor is there in the scene, reading a list of his own.
It’s not a particularly clean and simple book this which is one of its great strengths. The Visitor himself shifts from the perspective of something quite unworldly and odd to something almost benign and it’s hard to think through just what or who he’s meant to be. But perhaps, really, this is one of those books that thrives on that indeterminacy, of asking children to ascribe feelings and motivation to the incomprehensible edge of life and to try and understand those things with rough edges and less than straightforward intent. The Liszts does, I suspect, lean more to the older edge of the picture book market, but again that’s no bad thing. It’s a book that is beautifully produced but also one which thrives on an almost Gothic edge of otherness, something you might see in Neil Gaiman’s work or Chris Riddell. That edge of the world where things aren’t straightforward, but they are.
Artistically, this book is a joy. Sarda illustrates this book with a gleefully weird, almost 1920s edge where the ladies wear turbans and the gentlemen have great and splendid beards. Butterflies are pinned onto the wall, whilst characters sunbathe next to an empty swimming pool, scattered with leaves and detritus. It is a dark, odd, wonderful book this with images that fill the page and defy expectation or predictability. My only slight tinge of doubt is with the font; it’s one of those wobbly hand-written, scratchy jobs that is a little bit difficult to read at times. Aesthetically it’s perfect, yet it would push The Liszts again to that upper edge of the picture book market. But that upper edge is a wonderful, dark, perfect space for this book to inhabit. It doesn’t tie everything off neatly, nor does it place itself squarely into a frame of expectation. It’s not easy to classify, nor is it easy to predict. It is weird, delightfully so, exuberantly so, and it is beautiful.
My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.