Perihan The Girl Without a Mouth, critiqued by Luke Frostick
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
Perihan The Girl Without a Mouth is a strange and beautiful comic written by artist and scriptwriter Cem Özüduru. This graphic novel should be a treat for comics enthusiasts and could very well be enjoyed by readers who normally avoid the genre.
In broad strokes, the whole story is touching and finishes with a real kicker of an ending. The plot starts off when, as the title suggests, Perihan is born without a mouth. Throughout her childhood, she has to undergo a sequence of painful surgeries to correct her mouth.
The story is a very concise look at growing up with and overcoming disability. It takes us through the highs and the lows of recovery. Perihan tastes food for the first time, learns to speak, to sing, to lie and gradually gains a voice of her own. However, she grows up in constant fear of her mouth sealing over again, the new world she gained being taken from her.
The graphic novel also details her friendship with Zehra; a girl of the same age who is also forced into silence not because of a physical disability, but because of the trauma in her life. As Perihan gains her voice, she learns that she can use it to help her friend.
Of course, when you consider a comic, the narrative has to be considered alongside the art. In Perihan The Girl Without a Mouth, the style of the art is stronger than the narrative. It is truly beautiful though it will seem a little unusual to readers who are used to American or Japanese comics. It has detailed panels and a slightly muted colour palette, which almost makes you feel that you are looking at old photographs found in a drawer.
Any great comic book has to find a storytelling balance between exposition, prose, dialog and art to tell the story, and I would say that that balance is executed well here. There are some extremely tender moments without any text at all. Moreover, Özüduru is able to use the panels in the comic to abruptly change the tone of a scene. Moreover, it has some graphic body horror, which is used powerfully.
I think it is a valid critique that the story is not cautious enough, as using body horror as a way to talk about people with physical disability is insensitive, that only by getting her mouth fixed could she live a normal life. The writer could have got around this issue if they had been clearer about the source of Perihan’s problems and by showing more of how she learned to cope with her condition and not be defined by it.
In fact the entire book suffers from a lack of clarity. Özüduru leaves some important scenes to the readers’ imagination. This can be a bold and powerful way of telling a story, in some places in the story it works. However, in other instances it doesn’t, and important context and sequences are left out.
I felt that the short page count of the book worked against it. Some character development, plot points and side characters could have done with a bit more space to be fully realised, to pack the emotional punch they could have had. The same is true for the thematic material.
The story could be seen as playing with a couple of extended metaphors, for example Perihan’s missing mouth, and her learning to speak resonates with a coming-of-age story, or Perihan’s condition could be taken as commentary on how women’s voices are often marginalised. The graphic novel never really developed those themes and sometimes took them in directions that didn’t totally make sense to me.
A bit more space in the book to fully flesh out these ideas would have improved it in my opinion. That being said, a story that makes you wish for more is always doing something right.
Incidentally, this comic is published by Europe Comics who specialise in publishing more obscure comics. They have a couple of titles by Turkish writers and artists and are working with a Turkish agency, Akan Ajans, to bring out more in the future. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.
Even if you are not looking for Turkish graphic novels, Europe comics is a really great resource for people want something outside the Japanese- and American-dominated mainstream. How many comic book fans reading this can honestly say that they have read a Polish comic?
To conclude, Perihan The Girl Without a Mouth, didn’t totally work for me, I felt that greater clarity both in the narrative and the metaphors that the story is trying to build would have been really helpful. It is nonetheless an interesting piece of writing and fabulous piece of art. It is a unique enough experience that I feel confident recommending it.
Luke Frostick is a writer based in Istanbul. He is the editor of the Bosphorus Review of Books. He writes for Duvar English and the Three Crows Magazine. His latest fiction publication is a short story in the Vampire Connoisseur anthology.