Friday Book Design Blog: Mother Island by Bethan Roberts vs Broadchurch by Erin Kelly

Jonathan Gibbs

mother island Friday Book Design Blog: Mother Island by Bethan Roberts vs Broadchurch by Erin Kelly
Bethan Roberts’ fourth novel is what you’d call high-concept – it’s got a tagline, there under the title, that seems to tell you everything you need to know about it in one tight, emotive phrase: How does it feel to find your two-year-old gone?

Of course there’s probably more to it than that, and I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know, but if you’re worried that this smacks of reductiveness, then the cover, at least, is playing on more than one level. It takes a moment, for instance, to spot the silhouette of the boy, arms outstretched against the title. It’s nicely done, although to my eye that boy looks older than two.

And it works its way around the usual cliche of the melancholy or distraught woman by  having two of them, one facing forward, one back, and in strangely blank poses. And that lovely flock wallpaper, somehow redolent of a certain middle-class inertia, but also strangely hypnotic, as if it’s about to suck you into its genteel vortex. There is nothing natural, nothing normal, nothing ‘realistic’ about that image.

It doesn’t take much to work out that the book is about the snatching of a child, and that one of those women is the mother, one the kidnapper. Turn the book over, however, and you get the same image reversed, against the same backdrop. Now the poses are starting to look like an identity parade. That is the only place you stand with that kind of limp attention, hands by the side, purposefully expressionless. Now the tagline reads: How does it feel to steal another woman’s child?

Two women, two sides to the story. Even with the eyes outside the frame we start looking at the women, trying to work out them out, decide who is who: who the mother, who the imposter.

First thought: each tagline belongs to the woman facing front; so the blonde with the floral dress and demurely buttoned cardigan is the mother – the hair looks bedraggled enough, you might say, and the barely opened mouth might just register dismay or incredulity, or tiredness – which makes the brunette in the trousers and buttoned top, with the ponytail, the abductor. See the set of her mouth. See the unfeminine get-up, the slight turn of the head, as if to avoid responsibility. Who’s the goody, who the baddy? Who the real woman, who the cold heartless bitch?

See how much fun it is to chase down assumptions – and my second thought is that, presumably, the novel has great fun upending them all over the course of its 300-odd pages.

And understand, too, how unusual it is to have characters depicted fully, facing forwards, on book covers. That cut just below the eyes is all-important.

FINALBroadchurch 445x700 Friday Book Design Blog: Mother Island by Bethan Roberts vs Broadchurch by Erin Kelly

As it happens, on the same day this arrived I also got a proof copy of the novelisation of Broadchurch. Look at it. How weird its. Think of your average crime cover – that genre’s particular parade of abstractions and cliches. Think about how many of them would have the protagonists represented face-on, meeting the reader’s eye, like this. None.

Also, while we’re at it…think about how many crime novels have two protagonists – meaning two ‘good guys’, two detectives.

TV and film: double acts, dynamics duos and odd couples. (Think of that True Detective Season Two meme.)

Fiction: solo mavericks and sad loners.

That’s one of the things that makes the Broadchurch proof look so weird. The studied, insisted upon glumness of the faces feels all wrong.  It’s not like Broadchurch the TV series didn’t promote itself with these same, angry, sad, disappointed faces, but they were generally in trailers, not still images, and even then they were not meeting our eye, they were directing their glumness off somewhere to the side, somewhere infinitely distant.

These two, staring out of the cover, make me think of all those X-Men/Hunger Games/Avengers Assemble decals on the windows of Subway (other fast food outlets are available, but Subway springs to mind as a particular offender) looking morosely out at the pedestrians walking by. “Eat some food here,” they seem to say. “You’ll feel really good about it.” Again, film posters: glum looks off stage-left. Book covers and Subway decals: glum looks right atcha!

Anyway, that’s what the Broadchurch duo look like.

And what the Mother Island duo would, probably, if you could see their eyes.

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