Welcome to a world where kitchens are populated by gods, where you know your death day well in advance, where children make their parents (yes, literally construct them), and where the best protection from a sudden downpour could actually be a table. Because it rains knives.
Scarper Lee’s schooldays are blighted by the imminence of his death day. Schoolmates and teachers alike treat him differently because of it, and that’s even before a new girl at school lands in his life, challenging all the givens and ready to turn what’s left of it upside down. At home his parents - a Bakelite hairdryer (Mum) and a brass and sail construction of indeterminate purpose (Dad, who’s kept in the shed) - remain his constant but slightly distant touchstones. How is a teenager supposed to deal with the last three weeks of his life in these circumstances?
There’s a lot to like in the world Rob Davis has created for The Motherless Oven (2014). To begin with it feels real - there’s a sense of establishment and history that’s completely believable, no matter how bizarre or unexplained to a real world sensibility the details are. Scarper’s life completely convinces, and Davis creates characters who fully inhabit their environment. There’s a danger in building a world around wordplay and bizarre quirks, a risk that all you get are a series of unconnected gimmicks. Not so here. Everything feels joined up and of a piece. Likewise the relationships, both established and new, work well and help to sell Scarper as attractive, put-upon protagonist in what’s in equal parts coming-of-age tale and exploration of free will and destiny.
Challenging the status quo is what teenagers are supposed to do, so on one level this is a relatively traditional story told in an extremely non-traditional setting, but what Davis does well is use that setting to play with the conventions in ways that aren’t always obvious. Again, world and characters fit properly together into a narrative they both naturally support.
Critically, as this is a graphic novel, the art (black and white, heavy on the black) is as strong as the story, and provides additional conviction to the world in both general style and specific detail. Davis delivers a world that has character and characters who do too. One look at new girl Vera Pike tells the reader most of what they need to know, even before we see her in action, and Scarper himself looks utterly real, even though the style is more cartoon than realistic. And for variety, at regular intervals as Scarper settles in for his evening ‘viewing’, there’s a page of startlingly beautiful design that you can easily get lost in for a while.
When you start out to tell either a coming-of-age tale or an exploration of free will and destiny, you have to know exactly where you’re going, and it’s impressive that, despite several possible digressions and the chance of the worldbuilding overpowering the narrative, The Motherless Oven tells a story with a solid ending that flows perfectly from everything that came before. It’s an ending that I suspect will divide opinion, but like it or not it’s a ‘proper’ ending.
The trick to making the surreal work is to treat it like it’s normal, which is exactly what happens here. Scarper’s reality is one of created parents, household items with souls, and cutlery-based precipitation. There’s nothing odd about this and that’s why it works, and why the story told is as strong as it is. You may emerge from The Motherless Oven wondering what the hell you just experienced, but in this context I’d say that’s a clear win.