The cover and back description do not promise an easily identifiable hook for Why I Killed Peter. In fact, the way they both withhold their identity becomes the first hint of the story's true nature. The double faced entity on the front that is both a man with a beard and an intimidated silhouette of child. The title promises violence but abstains from answering until the reader is committed to opening the book. For some, the topic should be sadly easy to deduce but for others the wariness sets the tone and serves as a warning. It will not be a jaunty adventure story, it will not be a lighthearted tale.
The first half of the book is comprised of a set of vignettes, with the header "I Killed Peter Because I Was ____ Years Old" beginning each chapter. At first, it seems to be another coming of age novel, where the narrator, Ollie, lives in relative safety as a child. The biggest concern he has so far is the subtle conflict between his overtly religious grandparents and his avant-guarde hippie parents. His narration is simple and full of authentic childish observations about his life. And although it starts off slowly, but the pacing is never aimless. From the remarks made of his father's many mistresses in their "open" relationship, to his grandmother's warning that little boys who pleasure themselves are doomed to hell, all create layers that are slowly peeled back to reveal another shade of context.
Peter is the common ground between Ollie's family members. He's a priest, which makes his god-fearing grandparents happy, at the same time he's a nonjudgmental and liberal, which appeases his parents. Effortlessly, he ingratiates himself into Ollie's life, and Ollie's desire for his approval is a natural extension of their relationship. Peter becomes the guide for Ollie's religious confusion and a trustworthy confidant, so when he invites Ollie to stay at his youth camp, the image of Ollie's happy face and red heart beating in excitement perfectly captures the love a boy has for someone he admires. At the same time we, the readers, begin to understand Peter's motivations in a more sinister light, the way he begins to ask if Ollie will keep secrets and gives him special privileges to stay in his favor.
The story doesn't hide the inevitable confrontation of Peter taking advantage of Ollie, but it doesn't pressure either--it appears in a slow and unavoidable arc. Peter's coercion is subtle and almost gentle, but no less monsterous in its effects. The act itself is kept shrouded in the dark, but it is the turning point of young Ollie giving way to the now adult Oliver because he has lost something. Olivier shows how damaging it is to have this violation happen to him, even if he spent years thinking it was no big deal. Or that he somehow agreed to all of it by saying yes to the initial overtures before realizing exactly what was happening. In fact, one of the most powerful scenes comes from adult Olivier having to confront his past self and young Ollie not believing him over Peter, because Peter was his friend. It becomes readily apparent that the tension of the book is not between Ollie and Peter, but Olivier and his past guilt, that the entire narration is his own way of facing himself.
Alfred's use of colors and simple illustrations fits perfectly with the story, and he knows exactly when to make use of our imaginations and when to pull back in order to ensure nothing about this book seems gratuitous or over sentimentalized. He often draws Peter like a hulking mass, filling up most of the page or more. For example, a panel where he was larger than the bus that took them to camp. Yet there is a consistency in when he exaggerates and when he pushes the straightforward and simple words of Olivier Ka. Their understanding of each other's mediums reaches a synthesis that many artist/writers have difficulty attaining. And there is a conscientiousness that comes to leaving parts up to the author and the reader, such as transitioning to photographs when they come to the summer camp, or blank pages with just Ollie's words, that exemplify the tone change when the story needs to be expressed in a different way.
Why I Killed Peter is certainly not for everyone. However, it is a book that expertly conveys the depths of a victim's turmoil and personalizes it without becoming preachy or overdramatic. It was meant to be Olivier Ka's method of dealing with his past, and the journey is something that many others can read to feel a measure of understanding.