Texas. Raining. Traffic everywhere. The whole world is dark. Shades of red and blue and purple. Bea decides not to get on the bus home, and instead, finds herself in Lucy’s Gas and Food, where Lou recognizes her. Lou offers to drive Bea where she’s going, knowing the Bea is on the run. They head west. They pull off the road and go into Big Spring, TX, pop. 50. Bea finds a cat. Its tag says it is from West, West Texas. They decide to take it home. West is not on any map. They ask around. None of the directions are that helpful. Bea is 18. Lou is 27. A mechanic.
They are running from their pain. There is a disturbing story that is driving Bea. It snows suddenly. Becoming friends. Lou teaches Bea to drive. Bea comes out to Lou, who never came out to her mother before she died. Two men, from the Office of Road Enquiry, are following them, and they want the cat. The women run from them several times. When they finally find West, there’s nothing at the place where the cat’s house would be. Suddenly, the world changes. Buildings and roads appear. They figure out what is going on. You will too. Walden introduces characters you want the best for—she is compassionate with their failings and foibles. You somehow see the world through their eyes. As the epigram from Adrienne Rich says, “All maps are fiction.” And fiction takes you places that you can’t find on a map, that you didn’t know you were going to, and when you get there, you have changed. Fiction is the map.
History is Kate Atkinson’s subject in every book (well every book that I’ve read), not just history in the sense of World War II in Life After Lifeand Transcription, but history in terms of all the pieces of what we have done, experienced, seen or thought about makes us who we are today, and she is an expert in introducing that history one piece at a time, and moving us from one moment to the next to different times and places. And Jackson Brodie, the private detective that she first introduced in Case Histories in 2004, is back again after nearly a 10 year hiatus. He is the centre of this book, and he isn’t, but he is torn apart by all his conflicting and conflicted histories, and he fails to operate in the world he inhabits,, or succeeds despite his failures.
Another part of Atkinson’s genius is the way her major and minor characters all have depth. Almost no one is there just to carry a spear. And, I am always amazed at how she gives just enough of their story to deepen the character, saving more for later. Their are heroes here, and there are very evil people, but most are in between trying to make their way and failing, some failing their way to love or friendship, others failing their way to failure.
I am not going to tell you the story. It involves Brodie and his ex-partner and their son and their dog Dido; it involves women who have been or are being used and controlled by men; it involves women who overcome the darkness; it involves children who find themselves in dark spaces who come through; it involves so many more characters worth meeting, and it involves sex trafficking, Epstein-esque soirees, where we see the evil and the suffering without it wallowing in horror and gore. The characters are glorious and more than worth spending time with. Read the book. Read everything she has written–I feel confident in saying that, despite not having read everything.
This is a quieter book than most of Atkinson’s. It’s a spy story that slowly unveils deeper and deeper levels. The book begins and ends with brief chapters as Juliet Armstrong is dying. Then Atkinson moves, as she always can, deftly to sections of the story in 1940 and 1950. Atkinson can shift from scene to scene in the space of a sentence. In 1940, Juliet is hired as a “girl” to be in a secretarial role with MI5, where she has to transcribe the meetings of a cell of fascist sympathizing fifth-columnists organized by an MI5 agent. She is soon sent undercover to infiltrate the Right Club led by the formidable Mrs. Scaife. For much of the novel, it seems this is all Juliet has been up to. It is a very English novel of ordinary men and women drably functioning in a grey world. Juliet mixes with the upper-classes among her bosses in the service, among the fascists and among her fellow secretaries.
Without fanfare, but just quietly moving us on, Atkinson reveals that there is so much more going on for Juliet and for the war effort, and hints that nothing ever quite ends, just from time to time, one after another, someone drops out or dies.
I thought I was disappointed in this, but now it may not be Atkinson at her most exciting, but it is this author at the top of her game.
If you like reading. You love finding a new author, and somehow it’s even better when that author is just starting out, and wows from the start. I began with Tillie Walden‘s extraordinary On a Sunbeam (You can read it here). Then her memoir of being a competitive skater Spinning. You won’t regret time spent with either of these. But I have just read her third graphic novel, A City Inside published by the wonderful Avery Hill Publishing. It’s a weird novel.
It begins with a young woman being told to relax and being given tea. I’m English, I appreciate that. Then she is told, “Swallow all your spit and breathe deeply.” The words “A City Inside” fill the next two pages. Continuing in the second person. “You left…trying to escape those southern ghosts…were too afraid to live in the city…so you decided the sky would be better.” She lives in the sky with a cat and meets “Her.” You is so taken with Her that You leaves the sky and moves in. Like a good poem, the story leaves sense at the edges and perfectly for a short graphic story, focuses on images of place. Her is even a place. All the old wounds inside You start to accumulate, and a new city is built. In You’s mind maybe? Not certainly. At the end, she steps out of the story and there Her is, in the waiting room. It is as though every line Walden makes on the page has meaning. Each panel is a small work of feeling. A work of story. A work of human emotion. At the end you are together with You and Her, and happy.
A young woman is buying tacos and Mark approaches her and says, “April, it’s me.” She replies, “You’re mistaken. Sorry…Have a good day.” Back at the motel her son, Eugene, is watching TV. “We’ve got to move,” she says. Eugene takes the bags to the car, and we realize that they are on the run. “April” (her real name is May) is a member of a gang who committed 52 simultaneous robberies in the same day in Prescott.
What’s so impressive about this book is that May is a murderer, who has double-crossed her gang and has implicated her son in her crimes, and she is loyal, an adoring mother, and someone who wants more for her son than she had. She gets more. He knows how to rescue her when some of the gang almost catch them. The two are rescued by a former banker who is now a truck driver, and they spend time with him in New Mexico, before May goes back to “sort out” the gang. There’s a twist near the end that makes the sympathetic drawings, and the loving relationship turn into a touching story.
There’s energy in the storytelling and the drawing. We are pulled along and cheer for May and Eugene to come through despite all they do. In the end we understand. Give it a go.
A Graphic Novel by Irene N. Watts and Kathryn E Shoemaker
Black and white images softly drawn. Shaded background. Any white is the word balloons, letters or aprons. Marianne arrives in London on the Kindertransport and is taken in by Mrs. and Mr. Abercrombie-Jones who were looking for an older child to be a second domestic in their home. They insist on calling her Mary Anne, and yet correct her when she mispronounces their names. They do send her to school where she makes friends. The painfulness of British anti-Semitism from schoolmates, caretakers, teachers and neighbours is scratched into the background of the narrative like the hatching in each frame. Marianne does make good friends in school who move on as she does when the London schools are evacuated–she goes to Wales where a couple hope that Mairi will replace their daughter who recently died. While the prejudices are not absent in Wales, the kindly Mr. Evans, guides Marianne through Llanelli. The end is too easy, but hopeful.
Daniel Raeburn: “I snicker at the neologism first for its insecure pretension—the literary equivalent of calling a garbage man a ‘sanitation engineer’—and second because a ‘graphic novel’ is in fact the very thing it is ashamed to admit: a comic book, rather than a comic pamphlet or comic magazine.”
I have discovered so many extraordinary novels, memoirs and non-fiction books that use cartooning to tell the story. My problem with the term “graphic novel” is not that it is pretentious–I suppose it is, but it describes what I am looking for–nor is it that it is a marketing term–all names for products that are sold are marketing terms: comics just as much as graphic novels. IT’s that not all graphic novels are novels. There is not a good term for the non-fiction, full length comics. Maybe it’s just “graphic non-fiction,” and in the end, graphic novels will be shelved with novels and non-ficiton shelved with its subjects. Graphic novels are another way of communicating, where a great deal of innovation is happening in how stories are told.