Although the word text of this stunning picture book is a beautiful free verse poem, it is the visual narrative of ‘Unforgotten’ that confirms Tohby Riddle's unique talent as a storyteller in pictures and design. And it begins with the multilayered meaning of the front cover. First we notice the black matte framing of a loosely vignetted image. That loose fading of what appears to be an archival photograph makes the image appear like a space suddenly cleared by hand in a foggy window, or an image exposed and already beginning to fade forever, or a brief illicit record through the lens of a spying camera, or the opening of a grave in the earth that tempts us to peer over the edge and down. As this framing continues throughout the book, it makes the images inside appear increasingly to be scratchy archival stills from silent films.
The sense of the past is strengthened by the handtooled font, that might have come from an old typewriter, or might just have been chiselled unsteadily on some plaque or plinth. Why unsteadily? Stonemasonry is after all a precision art. Perhaps the hand holding the chisel is quivering with emotion.
Then the image itself. It is a collage, laying Tohby Riddle's familiar illustration style over the muted palette of an old photograph. Is the city American? Maybe. The architecture and the idea of a park in the business district are familiar, but they are also marks of a European style that can be seen around the world. Then the plastic shopping bag tumbling through the air: it is the iconic slow-motion image from the 1999 Alan Ball/Sam Mendes film 'American Beauty', connoting the search for some beauty, any beauty, in a sordid and distressing world.
And the ghostly plinth. Riddle has explored the supernatural in earlier books such as ‘Yahoo Creek’. Even if it were not for the ethereal poem about the return to earth of an unidentified 'they' that is manifest phrase by phrase as the pages turn, the zooming in of the aerial perspective as the narrative progresses, the stark white of the angels against the shadowy images and the black framing, and what appears to be the lifelessness of the urban landscape, together confirm that this is an unearthly story. There are parallels with the imagined worlds of Shaun Tan and Michael Leunig.
The angels are drawn like old marble carvings from a cemetery, but with naive features as if pencilled by a child. They are childlike. They are loving. They are healers. They are also unexpectedly vulnerable, as one succumbs to the enormous task of trying to heal the earth, and itself needs to be healed, before it recovers and flies back to the endless starry galaxy it came from. The stark contrast in the palette and the sketchy pencilling compels our attention - so much so that we might miss how strange the earthbound figures in these cities appear. They are collaged from bodies in archival photographs and the sculpted heads of classical statues. Riddle's decision to have the heads disproportionately large makes the adults in particular look like foreshortened childlike figures from Victorian illustrations, or strange dolls, or mutant aliens - whatever. It is clear that most of them need rescuing.
Against the mesmerising background of captures from the Hubble telescope, the visual narrative fuses past and present, actual and imagined in an unforgettable reality. 'Unforgotten' is a strange title. It's not the positive 'Remembered' but it is the opposite of 'Forgotten' - and maybe a refusal to be forgotten. Less common than the word 'unforgettable', it implies that forgetting is the default expectation. Is forgetting, then, the only way humans can bear the loss of colour, of their loved ones, the loss of the clean clear skies, the loss of life-giving work, and love, and laughter? The donkey, the clown, the dog and duck watch over the healing of the broken angel like a new Nativity. The 'Unforgotten' therefore conveys a resistance to capitulation, however tentative. That seems the likeliest reading of the slightly battered 'roundabout' traffic sign that is the coda, against the constantly morphing illuminated cloud and blue sky, caught for just one final moment. Rebirth. ‘Unforgotten’ is not about circular confusion; it is about the presence of the past, the adult in the child, the child in the adult, the cycle of new life in continuity.