A blonde, blue-eyed baby is born to a non-white family in Copenhagen. A DNA test proving parentage does little to stop accusations of infidelity. Shunned by her family and supported only in secret by her husband, Sorraya raises her child alone.
Soon, similar cases appear across Europe – thousands and thousands of apparently illegitimate children. Racial tensions rise as society grapples with ideas of culture and identity. There is a panicked scramble to search for a cause, or even a cure.
The Danes is set in Europe in the near future, and attempts to explore ideas around race and prejudice through very gentle sci-fi: only one small change has been made from the real world, and it’s a perfectly reasonable one. From that single small change, ramifications grow and things spiral outwards to affect the whole of Europe.
The Danes suffers from a lack of space; it’s only about a hundred pages long, and that’s not much space for a graphic novel to cover both the plot and the themes. As a result, it’s quite rushed, with big societal changes that would have taken a while to occur happening within pages of each other. Some plot points come out of nowhere because there wasn’t time or space to tease them in. I’m unconvinced, for example, that even if the mysterious births happened in the real world, that the immediate response from society would be riots, grounded flights and an attempt at a medical cure. I’m prepared to accept these as eventual consequences, with some build-up, but The Danes – again due to a lack of space – presents them as an almost instantaneous response.
The plot operates at two levels – there’s the larger, societal plot with riots and politics and medical science, and then the smaller plot of people trying to track down the people who might be able to explain what’s going on. I understand that both strands are necessary, because otherwise there’d be just themes with no narrative, or just actions with no point, but again, this suffers in the short space available. Character motivations are unclear because they get one speech bubble to explain quite complex intentions, and I found that a couple of similar-looking characters became a little snarled up in my head; the characterisation was rushed and so they never fully established themselves as distinct.
Race is a complicated theme, one that it’s very easy to get wrong, particularly when dealing with “what-if” scenarios. I can see what the author was trying to do, but I think it didn’t quite work here. The Danes examines the idea of race linking to identity, and explores how this would start to evolve if race became totally divorced from ancestry. I think that’s an interesting topic, and one well worth the exploration. However, when dealing with the idea of racial tension and essential humanity, I think it’s important to show that common nature, and The Danes didn’t do that quite as well as I think it needed to.
In the aftermath of the births, tension rises. The author wanted to show the disruptive effect this would have on people of all races. However, the choice to focus primarily on blonde children being born to Muslim parents causes some issues. I don’t think the author intended this at all, but the racial tension and violence shown is shown primarily in that community – it’s the Muslim population who riot, it’s ISIS who set the bombs. Meanwhile, it’s primarily white men who do the investigating, who solve the problems and remain calm.
Again, I don’t think the author intended this. I think the author attempted to take an even-handed look at race and culture, and there are characters of different races on both sides, mentions made of the prejudice on both sides. There’s an argument to be made, as well, that art reflects society, and the most obvious link for modern readers is Islamic terrorism. However, if you’re going to write even semi-allegorically about race and culture, then you need to be so careful that you’re not accidentally reinforcing the idea of a civilised white society and a more violent other.
The key issue is one of impact. It’s a problem because of space, because of the complexity – it’s a perfectly understandable problem – but it is a problem. The Danes doesn’t hit as hard as it needs to, doesn’t sink home its points. You can see where it should, and it’s always trying to, but the messages never have quite the impact they should. Instead, key ideas are skated over in the rush for the next idea.
There are several things to praise about The Danes. It’s trying for a big, difficult, and important topic, and that is courageous. Whilst I have criticised the impression of race relations it gives, I must stress that it could have been far worse; it’s an unintentional issue in a book that does do a lot to present thorny issues well. However, I do think that the problem of space is a significant obstacle – with more room given to explore the ideas in more depth, I think The Danes would have been a lot stronger. Still, it is trying to tackle a complex issue, and it deserves credit for that.
In the interests of transparency, I note that I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley. This has not, as far as I am aware, influenced my review.