“Here’s to drinks in the dark at the end of my road”
Graphic Mundi has another book for us, The Parakeet, which is an English translation of a 2017 French comic. Espé is the creator, while Hannah Chute provides the translation. Let’s have a look!
This is a semi-autobiographical story set in the early 1980s, when Bastien, the main character, is a young lad of eight and is dealing with his mother’s schizophrenia. Espé tells the story very episodically, with each chapter lasting only a few pages, as he illuminates bits and pieces of Bastien’s life with his mother and father and grandparents, who live next door. It’s a harrowing way to tell the story, because he jumps around and gives us only brief glimpses into this tragedy that the characters are living through, leaving the rest to our imaginations. We get a sense of this in the first “chapter,” in which Bastien notices that his mother is missing her front teeth. His father tells him his mother slipped on the steps, but Bastien believes she tried to kill herself. This is on page 3, mind you, and we get hit with this information. That lets us know this will be a tough book.
Espé doesn’t shy away from the horror associated with Bastien’s mother’s illness, as I just noted, but I mean with how it affects everything in his life. This is the early Eighties, and while nobody wants to burn Bastien’s mother as a witch (something his father says at one point, which spurs Bastien’s imagination to picture her burning, which freaks him out), there’s still a stigma involved with it. When we first meet Bastien’s grandfather, he’s screaming at his daughter, wanting her to “snap out of it.” It’s terrifying, but that’s the attitude a lot of people have toward mental illness, and the grandfather doesn’t abandon her, so he’s not a complete ass. We also learn that Bastien’s parents weren’t married when he was conceived, another strike against them. At another point, Bastien’s grandmother believes her daughter’s illness is a punishment from God, another common idea about mental illness. Espé does a nice job bringing these things in through casual conversation, so it hits a bit harder – these people are just saying things without thinking because it’s so ingrained, so of course they’re going to look askance at the woman’s illness. It’s tragic but not surprising.
It’s even more tragic because not all the chapters are bad, naturally. Bastien’s mother can be well for long periods, and we get to see those times, too, and it’s all the more tragic because we know they won’t last. She’s very aware of what’s going on with her, too, so she tries to talk to Bastien during her more lucid moments about what’s going on with her, but it’s hard for him to understand. We also see how bad the hospitals in which she stays are, which makes her desperate need for care all the more gut-wrenching. In a nice twist, Bastien imagines that his mother might be a superhero, and when his friends witness one of her episodes, they believe it too, so he becomes more popular as a result. Small moments of triumph like that make the book a lot more charming but also horrific, because, as I wrote above, they won’t last. Bastien learns about life through this lens, which skews things for him a bit, but Espé does a good job showing how he draws some “normal-ness” out of his adolescence. It’s an odd sort of normality, but we do what we can.
Espés art is very good, as he has a nice cartoony style that shows the characters’ emotions very well, while his attention to detail gives us a good sense of place wherever Bastien happens to be, from the town he lives to the hospital where his mom stays. His drawings of Bastien’s mother’s “fits” are excellent, as he uses more brush work to blur his precise lines, shifting her almost out of phase with reality, and it’s very unsettling. Espé also does a nice job with Bastien’s imagination, doing the same thing – using more blurring – so as to link the two. It works well, because Espé does some astoundingly beautiful work, as when Bastien and his mother go for a walk in the woods, and the idyllic parts of the book are so beautiful but so delicate, and we know things can turn in a moment. The coloring in the book is very well done, too – he uses a base color palette for each chapter (it changes with each chapter, too), and then, when something dramatic happens, he shifts to a different color (usually but not always red), which intrudes nicely into the standard palette. Occasionally he blends the two – when Bastien leaves the hospital, the exterior is a cool, “sane” green, but through the front door, he can see his mother getting wrapped up in a straitjacket, and that inset part of the panel is bright, “insane” red. The coloring choices in the book are very interesting and clever, and they help the art have an even greater impact.
The Parakeet (the title is explained in the book, fret not!) is a really good comic. It’s depressing, sure, but Espé does a good job showing that Bastien’s life, while difficult, isn’t completely bereft of joy. Bastien’s mother causes everyone around her to bend to her will, but she tries hard to not be a burden, and Espé does a good job showing how much Bastien and his father love her and want her to be okay. It’s an interesting look at mental illness and the gravity it exerts, and how people work to overcome it, where even if they fail, the struggle is still a triumph. Give it a look!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆