by David Small
Thanks to Trevor over at The Mookse And The Gripes for pointing this one out. David Small's graphic memoir tells a story so extraordinary it feels like something from the Twilight Zone and his filmic and slightly gothic style creates a suitably dreamlike or nightmarish atmosphere for it. Growing up in 1950's America, Small shows us his household and its occupants all living isolated lives. His father spends his evenings venting frustrations into a punchbag in the cellar, his mother communicates her own pent up frustrations through the percussion of slamming kitchen-cupboard doors and his brother uses the more traditional form of percussion that is a drum kit. David himself remains solitary in his love of drawing and artwork, but his childhood is defined by his constant illness, suffering from respiratory problems.
David and I share the fact that our fathers were doctors and like Davd's my father couldn't help but use our family as guinea-pigs occasionally for some of the new treatments that became available. Whilst my father was a Consultant dermatologist and the new treatments were restricted to the odd lotion or potion, David's was working at the vanguard of the new medical technology of x-rays. At a time when it was thought that radiation could be used to treat a multitude of ailments David's father subjected his son to massive doses in order to cure him of the chronic respiratory problems that had plagued his youth. It can never be certain that these singularly caused David's later problem but they cannot but have contributed to the lump in David's neck, first spotted by a family friend, that would turn out to be cancer.
Amazingly it is several years before this lump is actually treated, mistaken at first for a benign cyst, and it is here that the really shocking element to the story occurs. After the initial operation David's parents, not wanting to worry their son unnecessarily, don't tell him about the severity of the second operation. In a telling moment, the significance of which David will realise later, his mother goes to the hospital bookstore to buy him a copy of Lolita, a book of 'filth' she had previously confiscated from his room and burnt. Like the final request granted to a condemned man, David's mother is prepared to grant him possession of a book she doesn't expect him to have the chance to read. When he does awake it isn't the now missing book that shocks but the devastation of the surgery which has left him with only one vocal chord and a scar on his neck that resembles a hastily tied bootlace.
David's life as a virtual mute makes up the rest of the book, the struggles with his family, a group of misfits who have loomed large in the story so far, like characters in a gothic horror, often illuminated by shadowy light. An isolated figure, David's vivid dreams are brought to life well by the illustrations here, text is kept to a minimum, and the panels flick past to create something close to the feeling of a silent movie (Trevor appositely mentions The Invention Of Hugo Cabret as a similar experience - another filmic book which has actually been optioned by Martin Scorcese). You cannot help but be cheered as he makes his escape from this upbringing, a sensation which leads to a slight chastening when Small reveals some family secrets at the book's close. It has been published for the Young Adult market in America and part of me did feel that there was a simplification of the story. It may be 330 pages or so but they literally fly by and whilst there are some nice visual touches and a sensitivity running through the book that engages the emotions, I did wonder whether a book aimed at a slightly older audience might have been able to develop some of the themes and secrets only hinted at here.