Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I think the real secret of being a writer is learning to be a convincing liar... I mean, that's what we are: story tellers... liars..."
Nicholas Hardiman is a relatively successful author, most popular for his string of "Doctor Inchcombe" crime novels and their televised versions. He's middle-aged, middle-class, and thoroughly charming. He's also a serial philanderer. His wife, the homely Beth, runs their Stonefield working retreat for writers out in the British countryside, cooking for their guests and typing up their daily manuscripts along with her husband's. And she's more than just his business manager, though she is that as well: she's constantly suggesting alterations and plot points, like asparagus for dinner. Their gardener, Andy Cobb, a failed graphic designer, used to live on Winnard's Farm, across the fields, until he was fourteen when they had to sell their ancestral home:
"Everything went arse-shaped for Dad. No money in Dairy unless you're big."
He resents the rich weekenders with their second homes, commuting during the week back to London, leaving the tiny village a lifeless skeleton:
"Oh very nice!! No shop, no bus, no school, no post office, no community any more! Just a load of ponced up, over-priced real estate. Look at it! Cottage Cheesecake!"
There's little to do for the younger generation except hang around the abandoned bus shelter, flirt with each other clumsily, throw mud at the cows and obsess over celebrity rags and their papped stars' cellulite. So when young and sexy gossip columnist Tamara Drewe returns to the empty Winnard's Farm where she too grew up, her parents having bought the house itself from the Cobbs back then, the local lull gives way to a sudden surge of prurient interest. Andy falls for her; fat academic writer Glenn resents her openly (he already resents Nicholas privately); and the village teenagers dub her "Miss Plastic-Fantastic" after the nose job which has transformed Tamara into an undoubted beauty. She certainly knows how to work it. Only Nicholas appears to ignore her.
The final disruptive ingredient is Ben Sergeant, ex-drummer of the popular Indie band Swipe (a name its bassist took too much to heart when he ran off with Ben's girlfriend, their vocalist), whom Tamara spies in a London bar and scoops up for herself. Ben and his dog are both loud and aggressive, the boisterous dog worrying the cattle while its owner sneers at the writers and their retreat. But he's an A-list celebrity, and you know what young girls are like: Jody develops an enormous and unrealistic crush on Ben, persuading the easily led Casey to join her in stalking the couple then, when they're away for Christmas, "breaking" into the farmhouse using the key left under the flowerpot for Andy to rummage through Tamara's clothes and borrow one of Ben's dirty t-shirts. Although Casey is uneasy about the whole thing, they make a habit of it until, on February 14th, Jody spies the laptop that Tamara leaves there during the week and sends the first of two fateful emails...
Let's start with the art, shall we? Lush pastel hues are washed over the most graceful of lines and soft pencil shading, evoking the tranquil beauty of the rustic landscape, whether it's the fresh green sprigs of spring, the cold, crisp blue of a winter's night, or the vibrant shepherd's delight of a closing sunset. There's an elegant shorthand in the faces and their subtle expressions. The book would fail completely if Simmonds couldn't draw a beautiful woman, but Tamara is all she's cracked up to be with her soft mouth, bright doe eyes, naturally flowing hair and her casual city chic. Conversely, Jody, self-obsessed and self-indulgent, is all front teeth, with the eyes of a cat.
The layout is the most unusual feature of Posy's books, being a hybrid of sequential art and prose, the perfectly positioned, hand-lettered panels wrapped around typed-up text as seen from the perspective variously of Beth, Glen and Casey, with the occasional column from Tamara. It's no easy task to pull off, but very easy to read, the panels usually driving the narrative, but at other times acting as parenthetical asides. At no point do you feel - as happened on occasion both in STRANGERS IN PARADISE and THIEVES & KINGS - as if you're having to slog through the prose to get to the comics. That's partly due to the fact that on no single page does the comic give way to prose, and partly because the voices ruminating throughout are so engrossing.
In particular Posy's grasp of modern slang and priorities lends Casey's observations a perfect credibility, while Beth's mental handwringing, stewing over what Nicholas might be up to and how she's supposed to react, is spot-on. The plot threads are gradually developed and intricately entwined, and what struck me very much towards the end is that unlike a great many graphic novels which leave you in the lurch as if their authors have lost interest and energy after the punchline, the conclusion is far from abrupt, playing itself and all possible ramifications out over a couple of dozen pages with an extra twist as it does so.
I don't suppose this month's choice for the Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month Club comes as a surprise to anyone, although if you'd heard my roars of laughter on Sunday night, lapping up the latest SCOTT PILGRIM, you might have wondered if I'd waver. But no, TAMARA DREWE is on another level entirely, and given how much prime, straight British fiction there is in comics these days, it's surprising that other than Simmonds' equal triumph, GEMMA BOVERY, there's still nothing remotely like this out there: graphic novels about middle-class, extra-marital affairs set out in the countryside. The TV schedule's full of that sort of thing.
It is, as I've said, a quintessentially British work, at once quiet and clever and observant, yet threatening all the time to give way to drama and tragedy. Recklessness, deceit and outright sabotage: it'll all end in tears as everyone comes undone.
"What can happen? What can ever, ever happen in this place?"
You'd be surprised.