Stories have power: To transmit truths, amplify voices and empower people. Which is why one of the hallmarks of oppressive societies is to deny the oppressed their stories, the power to control their own narratives.
Isabel Greenberg’s graphic novel The One Hundred Nights Of Hero sketches a gorgeous tale out of this premise, weaving together stories both familiar and new into a larger whole. The book is set in the same fantastical world as her debut, The Encyclopaedia Of Early Earth, but like its predecessor, reaches beyond its pages to resonate deeply with the world we live in.
The story begins in the city of Migdal Bavel, where two men are having a rather infuriating conversation about women: Manfred is of the opinion that all women are unfaithful, while Jerome insists that his wife is the most chaste woman he knows. This results in them making a twisted wager. While Jerome is away for 100 nights, Manfred bets that he will be able to bed Jerome’s wife, Cherry.
When Cherry hears of this, she realises it is a no-win situation for her. This is a world where women are allowed very few personal liberties, from not being allowed to read to not choosing their own partners. Even if Cherry were to resist Manfred, he would force himself on her and tell Jerome he was succesful.
Cherry’s beloved maid Hero, however, comes up with a solution. Every night when Manfred comes by, Hero tells him marvellous stories that wend and weave into each other, leaving him so enthralled that he forgets his mission.
And what stories they are!
For Hero is a member of the League of Secret Story Tellers, a movement of women who secretly share stories: real stories, imaginary stories, and stories that are somewhere in between. And at the heart of each one are women.
It is, of course, no accident that the book borrows its frame from One Thousand And One Nights, which features one of literature’s best-known storytellers, Scheherazade. It is also not coincidental that in both cases, stories are the women’s salvation and sanctuary.
Hero’s stories are delicate yet profound: some speak of love and loss, others of hopes and dreams. Most also ruminate on freedom and equality, and the often painful path to achieving them.
But Greenberg never lectures, she’s much too subtle a storyteller for that. The point here is stories – being able to tell them, re-tell them, share them, and savour them.
And so fittingly, one can never quite make out where Greenberg’s tales are coming from, or where one ends and the next begins.
There are retellings and reimaginings of folk tales, such as The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Twa Sisters. There are also stories that play on our familiarity, like those of an elusive moon maiden or a group of wise old crones. And then there are others that are completely the author’s own.
Greenberg’s distinctive line drawings give the narratives an otherworldly quality, which suit the fairytale/folkloric themes. The framing and emphasis on expression, meanwhile, make the characters immensely relatable.
Unlike the largely muted hues of The Encyclopaedia Of Early Earth, Greenberg expands her palette here to infuse the illustrations with sudden bursts of life – her use of selective colouring may seem spare at first glance, but they expertly reflect emotion, create a sense of place, or highlight plot points.
The way it all comes together is where The One Hundred Nights Of Hero excels. As the book progresses, Hero and Cherry gradually shift from providing the narrative frame to becoming a part of the long line of stories themselves.
More than that, as Hero and Cherry draw strength from these stories and their love for each other to stand up to the misogynistic circumstances they are trapped in, Greenberg brings together all the different strands of the book into one triumphant, hopeful whole.
Stories won’t provide easy answers to life’s injustices, but The One Hundred Nights Of Hero asserts that there is power to be found in telling our own stories – and perhaps hope too.
The One Hundred Nights Of Hero
Writer/artist: Isabel Greenberg
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company