Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Graphic Memoir Review: Fun Home

As many of you know, I have been exploring graphic novels recently and have been making my way through Flavorwire’s list of 25 EssentialGraphic Novels. Most that I have read I have enjoyed but not been bowled over by. I just finished reading Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, a graphic memoir of her childhood and her relationship with her father, and I absolutely loved it. It was moving, engrossing, insightful, and I never wanted it to end.

Alison grew up in a small town in the mountains of Pennsylvania with her mother, father, and two brothers. In some ways, she had a typical childhood – going to school, playing pretend with her friends, exploring the local woods and streams with her brothers – but much of her childhood, and especially her Dad, was quite unusual. Her father was completely obsessed with antiques and restoring their old home, so Alison’s childhood was filled with decorative woodwork, vintage curtains and wallpaper, and lots and lots of dusting.

That wasn’t her father’s only eccentricity, though. He worked full-time as a high school English teacher but also served as their town’s mortician in his family’s funeral parlor (which they had nicknamed Fun Home). Oh, and her father was gay, a fact that Alison didn’t know until she was in college and came out to her parents as a lesbian. So, yes, Alison’s childhood was more than a bit unusual.

The focus of her memoir is on her relationship with her father. In fact, at times, it feels like an intimate, personal journaling by Alison, trying to make sense of their relationship and of his death and working through those complicated feelings by telling their stories. She details moments they shared, ranging from working on the house together (or rather, she following his orders), sharing his love of literature, and even the odd, sometimes unsettling times when he was working at the funeral home. Since her father was an English teacher and lover of literature, she also fills the memoir with literary references that provide the glue that held their relationship together and hints as to what was going on in his mind.

The memoir is an exploration of Alison and her dad’s unusual relationship, but it is also a coming-of-age story, as Alison grows up and realizes she’s different from other girls and struggles to find her identity and become comfortable with herself. It is a very candid, honest analysis of her life and her father’s life and how the two are intertwined.

A sample page from Fun Home (click to enlarge)
Being a graphic memoir, this complicated story is told through pictures, and Alison’s illustrations are absolutely compelling, filled with fascinating details. They are almost photographic in their complexity (and sometimes, like on the cover, she even recreates old family photos), and she incorporates all kinds of interesting pieces, like pages from books, handwritten excerpts of letters, and even dictionary entries. In an effort to piece together her own story, she has mined her memory for the tiniest details, and brings them to the page to share with the reader.

Fun Home is an extraordinary memoir. In some ways, it is even more personal and in-depth than a purely textual memoir because the reader picks up so many minute details from her realistic illustrations. The author shares not only her story but her emotions and her personal pain…and joy, too. This book opened my eyes to how much depth a graphic novel/memoir can provide, and I highly recommend it.

232 pages, Mariner (Houghton Mifflin Company)

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