Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tamara Drewe: --a lot of men into her thrall

Man, another missed new comics week?  I blame being sick again, and what the hell is going on that I'm always sick on Mondays lately?  Dammit.  But I've got this:

Tamara Drewe
By Posy Simmonds

Posy Simmonds is apparently a well-regarded cartoonist is her native England, but she is nearly unknown in the United States.  Chances are that that will change though, considering the storytelling and artistic skill on display in this new book.  She has an interesting and fairly unique style, possibly inherited from her work on children's books, in which she uses sections of text on most pages along with panels of comics artwork, with the text acting as a sort of inner monologue for one of the characters.  It makes for a different sort of reading experience than most comics (I won't even get into the pointless debate of whether the text disqualifies it from being a comic; it counts as comics, as far as I'm concerned), but Simmonds uses the mixture of storytelling media skillfully, and it ends up being quite satisfying.

The story here centers around Stonefield, a writers' retreat in the English countryside that ends up being a center of soap operatic intrigue over the course of the year depicted in the book.  Some of this involves the title character, who moves into a neighboring farm after her mother, the owner, dies.  As a sexy young thing, she immediately causes a stir, mostly in the loins of the various Stonefield men.  But the greater soapiness might come from the relationship between the couple that runs Stonefield, Beth and Nicholas Hardiman.  Nicholas is a famed author of crime novels, and his income allows the retreat to continue operating.  But while he is something of a prima donna, Beth runs everything, from the finances, to the cooking, to answering fan mail and typing his manuscripts.  So it hurts all the more when he cheats on her, although she seems to have resigned herself to it, as long as he is honest about it.  It's when he keeps it a secret that really bothers her, and a scene early in the book almost sees their marriage collapse because of his lies.  As dysfunctional and sad as it is, it's a realistic portrait of the compromises that people make to remain in the life with which they are accustomed.

Simmonds does a pretty incredible job with this characterization; everybody seems like a fully-formed individual here, and she gets right inside their heads, allowing us to experience these moments along with them.  Beth comes off well; we can see how she has thrown herself into her life, how she cares for her husband even when he exasperates and angers her, and how she loves writing enough to be a big part of it, even if she doesn't do it herself.  Simmonds' art certainly helps; as with all the characters, Beth comes off as distinctive and unique; it's a deceptively detailed portrait, given Simmond's soft-edged, clean-lined art style:

It's a testament to Simmonds' storytelling skill that we develop such affection for her characters; one of the saddest moments comes when Beth accidentally picks up what seems to be part of Nicholas' current novel, but turns out to be something different and personal:

But there's much more to experience here than the relationship of a middle-aged couple.  We also see Glen, an American academic who is in Stonefield working on a literary novel.  He's a fairly small part, but Simmonds also develops him beautifully, especially in how he reacts to Nicholas, who, as a popular, bestselling author, treats him with a sort of contempt disguised as respect.  It's a complex relationship, but totally believable.  He also has a strangely mixed reaction to Tamara, who writes a popular newspaper column and harbors ambitions of greater things.  He seems to have a contempt for her, but it's wrapped up in resentment at how she arouses sexual desire in him as a kind of tease, since they both know he would never have a chance with her.  The feelings are all awkward and complicated, but Simmonds makes them perfectly understandable through his inner monologue; it's skillful writing, made all the more so by how subtly it is accomplished.

Rounding out the characters to whose thoughts we are privy is Casey, a local teenager who gets wrapped up in all the drama involving Tamara and everyone around her.  The kids get interested when Tamara takes up with Ben Sergeant, the ex-drummer of a popular rock band.  Casey's friend Jody becomes obsessed with Ben, even going so far as to sneak into Tamara's house when she and Ben are out of town to root through his things.  Casey is hesitant to go along with these shenanigans, but she ends up getting roped into it by her more assertive friend.  As with the other characters, Simmonds paints a wonderful portrait of the inner life of these kids, using plenty of slang and showing how they are so focused on trivialities like sex (losing their "V-plates" is a big concern) and celebrity.  Although is that any more consequential than the more mature-seeming sex and fame that the grown-up characters obsess about?  As with the others, Simmonds subtly builds these characters until they seem like real people that we know.  It's masterful work.

As a whole, it makes for an immensely satisfying work, building to a tragically sad conclusion and developing the characters satisfyingly throughout.  And as nice as the writing is, the artwork complements it beautifully, giving the characters a nice expressiveness (a nice touch, since so much of what is going on takes place internally) and grounding them in beautiful landscapes that change along with the seasons.  It's a wonderful book, and Simmonds definitely deserves to gain wider acclaim because of it.  If you're like me and have never read any of her work before, give this book a try, and then join me in searching out her other works.  She's pretty great.