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Ten years ago, Nick Bantock until then an illustrator and creator of pop-up books shot to sudden fame with Griffin & Sabine, a love story unlike any ever published. It was a beautiful, enigmatic series of original postcards and illustrated letters (which had to be removed from their envelopes to be read), exchanged by Griffin Moss, a London illustrator, and the mysterious Sabine Strohem, unknown to Griffin but sharing a psychic awareness with him. It appealed to readers' sense of romance and their voyeuristic inclinations.
It quickly became a best-seller, as did Sabine's Notebook and The Golden Mean, completing what became known as the Griffin & Sabine trilogy.
While enormous attention has been paid to the quality of the illustrations and the love story at the heart of the books, little mention has been made of the trilogy's complex psychological subtext. A Jungian reading would suggest that Griffin and Sabine are manifestations of opposing aspects of a single personality Bantock's, perhaps.
The author/illustrator continued this psychological exploration in later books, including The Forgetting Room and The Venetian's Wife, and it is an exploration to which he returns in his brilliant new illustrated novel, The Gryphon. The first book in a new trilogy, it brings back Griffin and Sabine and shows Bantock upping the ante significantly.
The Gryphon begins by introducing two new correspondents Matthew Sedon, a young archeologist at work in Alexandria, and his relatively new-found love Isabella de Reims, a student in Paris. To conquer the distance between them, the pair exchange postcards and letters. (Bantock neatly deals with the niggling question of "Why letters in the age of e-mail?" by emphasizing the romance of the printed word. Besides, Isabella's computer is on its last legs.)
It is not crucial to have read the original trilogy to enjoy The Gryphon. Bantock summarizes the plot with a brief introduction and subtle comments. A close re-reading of the first three books will, however, reap significant benefits in the recognition of recurring patterns and motifs.
The first of these patterns is Sabine's introduction. In a conscious echo of her first approach to Griffin Moss, Matthew receives a postcard from Sabine, whom he has never met, yet who nevertheless seems to know much about him. The first postcard Matthew receives is, in fact, the final postcard of The Golden Mean.
Over the course of a few more exchanges, Sabine directs Matthew to pick up a package, being held for safekeeping in Alexandria, which contains the original correspondence of Griffin and Sabine. She urges the young archeologist to read the letters. "Do not be put off by the personal nature of these documents. There is a much broader significance."
With The Gryphon, Bantock is committed to shifting away from "the personal nature" and exploring "the broader significance." As a result, the novel is more complex than any in the previous trilogy. The addition of a new pair of lovers complicates the correspondence (letters and postcards crossing back and forth among four characters), but their inclusion, and the nature of the new couple, signals a deliberate shift in emphasis.
Where much of the pleasure of the first trilogy lay in the anticipation of Griffin and Sabine's first meeting, Matthew and Isabella are already intimate, already in love. By removing that anticipation and acknowledging the first set of correspondence, Bantock is free to more directly explore psychological depths, offering a vivid Jungian, alchemical account of transmutation and transformation.
That's not to say that The Gryphon is dry and scholarly. Far from it. It's a heady brew of love and separation, passion and mystery. It's a breezy read, for the act of reading someone else's mail tends to bring out the furtive