Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Read this book

Gemma Bovery
by Posy Simmonds
Pantheon Books
ISBN: 0375423397

I picked up Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery because I loved the name. Yes, I know its literary heritage but more so from Woody Allen’s short-story The Kugelmass Episode than Flaubert’s work. And while nowhere near necessary, having read Flaubert’s novel Madam Bovary would allow the reader to see many more parallels that I simply wasn’t able to. But, seriously, it’s not required reading to enjoy this book.

I know very little about Posy Simmonds other than she’s English and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen her illustrations and cartoon strips in the papers when I lived there. Then again, maybe not. She’s a bit of a figure that I feel was hovering just out of my eye sight or earshot during my years living in the UK. The artwork here felt instantly familiar to me so I kind of have the feeling I’ve seen her work before. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the artwork of Miriam Katin’s We Are On Our Own but it could just be that both had a very loose and comfortable feel to them. It’s warm and engaging because it doesn’t feel over produced which really helps mirror the plot of a married English couple settling down in rural Normandy only to be beset upon by the local baker Joubert.

I almost feel like I’m cheating you by trying to summarize the plot because any summary I give will gloss over the actual joy and brilliance of the book. Where the book shines, isn’t in its main plotlines but in the little details throughout. It’s how the characters reveal themselves and you get to know them more and more with the minimum of effort by both you the reader and through the precise line-work that conveys everything about a character exceptionally well.

On it’s most basic it’s the story of Gemma Bovery as witness through the local baker Joubert who gets more and more obsessed with her and her life. Gemma has lived a life almost mirroring that of Flaubert’s famously doomed heroine. She cheats on her husband, falls in love and eventually dies – which is no big shocking secret if you’re worried about me spoiling the plot here. Joubert is relating not just her story to the audience but his own as he is going through Gemma’s diaries as he tries to piece together everything in her life.

This is a very intimate story that captures all the highlights of “classic literature” for a modern audience. It’s a slower paced story with a judicious use of images and lots of text throughout. If I were a scale making type of man I’d say this weighs more on the novel aspect of the graphic to novel ratio on the graphic novel scale. It’s a love of words that conveys the action with graphic punches to fortify and strengthen the characters in your mind. We get one main narrator but we also get access to what all the characters are thinking and saying when he isn’t about.

If you forced me to describe this book in a word or two I’d go with something like modern pastoral, or neo-classical French intimate drama. Pretentious words I know but this is a smart book that is actually an escape from everything you think you know about comics. It’s a rewarding read, it’s a sad read, it feels voyeuristic and is ultimately tragic but you never feel cheated – which is a major accomplishment in any comic these days. Plus, it ends with the possibility for a sequel which I thought was a brilliant little commentary on the comic medium whether intended or not.

I have to agree with the Grand Old Wizard of comics Alan Moore when he writes “The pity of it is that the vast majority of people who like to think of themselves as comic fans... will never do themselves the favour of picking it up and getting a decent education in graphic narrative."

This book is wonderful and is simply a treat to have read. It's a few years old (1999 was the first printing) but is widely available in bookstores if not your local comic shop.

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