Fanny Britt is well known in her native Quebec as a translator, playwright and children’s author. As well as being the first of her books to be translated into English, Jane, The Fox & Me is also her first foray into the graphic novel genre. She’s fortunate to be supported in this endeavor by the beguiling Isabelle Arsenault, whose illustrations for Kyo Maclear’s Virginia Wolf deservedly won the Governor General’s Award in that category a year ago.
Set in Montreal, the story is told from the point of view of Hélène, a young girl who lives in a shabby duplex with her overworked mother and two brothers. At school, the girls who used to be her friends have, for unknown reasons, suddenly metamorphosed into bullies. Their teasing mostly focuses on Hélène’s weight—which is mystifying given that she appears to be slim—but she takes the insults enough to heart that buying a bathing suit with her mother becomes an exercise in humiliation.
The copy of Jane Eyre she reads every day on the bus is Hélène’s only escape from these daily tortures, something Arsenault reinforces by rendering Hélène’s world in smudgy greys, scenes from Jane Eyre in warm, gently hued watercolours. On a dreaded overnight trip with her school, a chance encounter with a fox (who also makes a sly, taxidermied appearance in Mr. Rochester’s study) eventually leads Hélène to the fellow outcast, Géraldine, who becomes her best friend and salvation.
Visually, the novel dazzles; Arsenault is as adept at rendering Montreal streetscapes as she is at capturing subtle emotional exchanges between characters. Story-wise, it mostly works too, though the Jane Eyre theme gets stretched a tad farther than it wants to go; the parallels between Brontë’s novel and Hélène’s situation aren’t as obvious as Britt seems to think they are. Deciding to have Hélène be bullied for being fat when she isn’t remotely plump is also a tad confusing. As an object lesson in the merits of quality over quantity when it comes to friendship, however, it charms and satisfies.