Page 45 Review by Stephen
"On the last day I had tits on this Earth, I painted them yellow, with orange nipples.
"I painted them orange, with green nipples.
"I painted them red, with yellow nipples.
"Then I rinsed off, the tears becoming the water I swam in, red paint ribboning away from me like blood."
That's about as eloquent as anything I've ever read.
I hope it's not too stark for this astute, 350-page, autobiographical epic is riddled with wit, mischief, self-deprecation, joy, exasperation, love, learning, empathy and the sort of profound understanding of what is and isn't important that can only come with hindsight and experience after a whole load of mistakes. It's a graphic novel that makes you appreciate what you've got and who you're surrounded by. I practically fell in love with Jennifer's husband, Jim, and Jim's mother Alice, both bottomless wells of kindness.
The cartooning is rich and playful with parenthetical asides that will have you grinning, and fantastical embellishments that speak volumes in shorthand, especially on recurrence. It's dense with detail and luxurious textures which convey unmistakable senses of both time and place, but kept clean and clear by spacious gutters between each four-panel page.
I love the pointy noses, and as for the eyes it's minimum fuss for maximum empathy. Hayden can convey so much in two circles, two dots and a couple of perfectly placed eyebrows. There are lots of clever devices like diagrams and charts and you may end up missing those curly whirly telephone chords which are now almost extinct. Communication is a big theme here. Some people are better at it than others.
Jennifer's practical mother would rather not, even after a mastectomy
"You've been through something really big, Mom. Don't you want to talk about it?"
"Well, I certainly don't think we need to dwell on it."
Which is admirable in a way, but Jennifer's own instinct had always been to express and even explode on occasion.
"My revenge was never to stop talking about emotions - mine and everyone else's."
She depicts herself like Charles Schultz's Lucy behind a lemonade booth marked 'Unlicensed Pyschologist. 5 cents. Free Beer. (The Doctor Is In)'. An unwitting patient's popped by.
"Holy shit! So how did you feel when you step-mother's lesbian lover came at you with the chainsaw?"
I did promise you mischief.
Jennifer's father also avoids communication even when her Mum is diagnosed early in the graphic novel with breast cancer. Jen's infuriated by his lack of support - he seems almost suspiciously equanimous to it all - but then her parents know something she doesn't, and when that secret comes out Jennifer will find, not for the last time, that she can remain culpably silent too.
This, then, this is the story of one woman's breasts from their frustrating late blossoming to their loss forever. It won't be the only loss, either, for some of Jennifer's loved ones won't last the years and I found several passages here to be devastating. But its scope is far wider for how else could you understand that loss? It encompasses more than one family, more than one generation and Hayden herself will grow over the years from a somewhat prickly aspiring writer (who, she says, sucked) and a woman who couldn't stop judging the success of her own life by the developments in others' - including marriage and children - into an artist, lover and mother who knows exactly what to communicate, when to communicate and how.
Hayden's finest moment is possibly when she judges it best to safeguard her children from what she's going through (breast examinations, biopsies etc) then when to tell them and in what way.
As she endures those examinations and diagnoses and she processes her own options and what they imply for her future it is gruelling and harrowing and, yes, she breaks down, terrified of what lies ahead. She'd been living with the prospect for years ever since her mum was first diagnosed and who amongst us here is superhuman, after all? But at every turn Jim is her enduring rock (they met way back at college!) and if he were ever to read this (I cannot think why) I'd just like to say, you're a star.
Jennifer, by the way, opts for a bilateral mastectomy - the removal of both breasts when only one was cancerous - and her reasons are arrived at with clarity. It's a brave thing to do to bear all, but this will undoubtedly shed light and provide hope or - if there is or turned out to be no hope in the end - the sympathy of a shared journey.
There's a whole lot of love to be had along the way.