Page 45 Review by Stephen
"The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story but writes another."
- J.M. Barrie
"Man" has been crossed out and replaced by "girl"; an 's' has been prefixed to "he".
Three figures float, silhouetted and suspended underwater. The water is dark and evidently deep, the girl and two boys helpless, unconscious, their arms and legs all akimbo. A full, rippled moon is reflected.
Imagine the worst mistake you could ever make. Then imagine trying to live with it.
16-year-old Wendy Davies is driving her car late one summer's night in New England. In the back seat sits her younger brother John, immersed. In the passenger seat her other, bespectacled brother Michael is listening to music through headphones, though it's evidently still loud. Tetchily Wendy shouts at him and, perhaps reaching for his headphones with her right hand, her left pulls hard on the steering wheel and the car careens into the lake.
There is a frantic struggle, breath escaping in bubbles, as the car's headlights sink from view. They all reach the surface, gasping for air, but Michael doesn't stop there, flying up into the stormy sky.
"Michael! Where are you going?"
"Wendy, come with us," the clouds seem to say.
"I can't... I have to stay."
Her blue eyes gaze mournfully upwards.
"I know what I saw.
"So I told them."
This is such an important book, and it's so deftly done by writer and artist alike. The parallels with Peter Pan - which we later learn Wendy's read from a book hidden beneath another dust jacket and a Neverland poster affixed to her wall - are very well struck, as are the marked departures. There's the ever-open window, the ill-fated arrow, the acorn kiss, the jealousy of a fairy, the free-roaming shadow (oh, the shadow!) and especially the loss of memory: the ignorance and the bliss. That particular twist on what was originally written is of primary importance as to why this works so well (it is not Wendy's, but that's all I shall say), so into our much-thumbed Mental Health section this goes.
Dealing with any bereavement is difficult, but dealing with the burden of guilt as well...?
Unsurprisingly Wendy doesn't deal with it at all well. Never once is she blamed by parents or police, yet nor do they believe her story.
"Does your daughter have a history of substance abuse?"
She is assigned a therapist called Dr. Barrie whom Wendy dismisses as far too young to know what she's talking about, and is depicted by Fish in Wendy's mind's eye as sitting in a high-chair. She's given a sketchbook to write and draw whatever she finds too painful or even too crazy to talk about. She opens it up and a rainbow of colour flickers across her face.
"You owe me two pages next week."
Which brings me to my first observation about the art and production: the graphic novel comes with rare rounded corners (Marc Ellerby's diary comics collection ELLERBISMS is one of the first I saw) and faux-leather texture reflecting the Moleskine she's given. It's more than a neat gimmick; it's a very clever clue, for Wendy is our narrator.
The art throughout is rendered by SLAM!'s Veronica Fish in exactly the sort of loose pencil sketchwork which Wendy herself eventually, reluctantly then absorbedly, obsessively starts filling her book with. It also adds to the immediacy, intimacy and accessibility which I loved so much in Sina Grace's NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. But it is Fish's use of colour which mesmerised me most, reserved for the recurrent, free-standing shadow, very special items (like the book itself which to begin with is ditched on more than one occasion only to magically reappear), and for the illusions which will eventually come to an all-colour crescendo.
Over and over again, Wendy remains recalcitrant, but then we're given the impression that she always was which is critical to the credibility of her reaction to this abrupt bereavement and torrent of defiantly repressed guilt, redirected towards her parents as judgemental antipathy. It doesn't hurt that her social observations are so often astute.
"High school is like developmental purgatory.
"It's a cesspool of hormones and emotion.
"And everyone is looking for a life raft."
She spies two teenagers flirting by their lockers, depicted as Captain Hook and a mermaid, then a lone Peter Pan figure bathed in a wash of leaf-green, his hair golden yellow, a fellow rebel to her cause...?
"I know you."
The colour vanishes and his aspect shifts instantly from what she perceives to how he really is. He doesn't know her and does not respond, but is swept up instead by another girl who wonders "Who's the weird new girl?" Returning to the life raft:
"And just when you think you've found it...
"You're lost at sea again..."
We're only on page 11.
Grief manifests itself in so many ways. Individuals, by their very nature, react differently. Some rail angrily against a God whom they once believed in, go into denial or attempt to cauterise the wound immediately. I make no judgements. At first Wendy's parents refuse to enter, alter or in any way interact with Michael's room. Later, they bundle all his effects up into the attic.
"They packed up all his things like he didn't exist."
Wendy makes plenty of judgements, but I don't judge Wendy nor does Melissa Jane Osborne. I cannot even begin to tell you how impressive this is: a ridiculously tricky subject handled with compassion, kindness - and surely some considerable knowledge, I'm afraid.
"The worst thing that could've possibly happened to you already did.
"These are just drawings.
"Your feelings can't hurt you, Wendy."
I beg to differ, but still, without them you are lost. I'm not saying that there isn't a time or a purpose to walls, but what one builds up must surely come down if you are to remain connected.
I've a page of notes devoted to the shadow alone, another to the colour. They give too much away to risk revealing here, but I hope their existence implies how intricately and thoughtfully crafted the whole is.
It's another of those graphic novels like the Tamaki cousins' THIS ONE SUMMER which I firmly believe should be taught in schools at a teenage level because so many mistakes are made in a vacuum when discussion could surely avert them; and, as anyone who's read A MONSTER CALLS already knows, such profound sorrow as that experienced here is too often endured all alone when friends no longer know what to say... and so say nothing.
That behaviour is far from unique to young adults, but education early on might help us improve our open communication later in life too.
Poor Wendy simply doesn't understand the vital importance of any funeral which is to say - solemnly or otherwise - "good-bye". It's not a rejection, for everyone remains ever-present so long as one is fondly remembered, but it is an admission or concession that a great life has passed. Without that, you cannot move on.
Please don't think I've forgotten the other surviving sibling, John. His immediate, post-traumatic reaction is to shut down or at least shut up, refusing to confirm or deny his sister's account of that evening. But it's his secondary reaction that proves far more interesting and one that's given me much pause for thought since my second reading, once the truth has been established during a climax which is no cop-out, I promise.
So we conclude as we began with another quotation from Peter Pan playwright / prose author J.M. Barrie:
"To die would be an awfully big adventure."
It's the first line of this book, but "die" has been crossed out and replaced by "live".
As an opening line, it could not have been better chosen.