Monday 16 January 2012

Review: - Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

I don’t know if I mention it enough, but just in case I don’t, I really like graphic novels. Like, really like them. I have a lot of t shirts with really geeky graphic novel related things on them, and I refuse to be ashamed. I love the effort that goes into them and I love their general thick glossiness and how the stories themselves are generally totally kick ass. As part of the Graphic Novel Challenge last year I decided to branch out from my almost solely Neil Gaiman based graphic novel collection and try some different styles. Fun Home came on my radar when I was looking for books the internet thought were similar to Perspolis by Marjane Satrapi. Any of you who have been reading my blog over the last year will probably know that Persepolis was my ‘oh my god what is this book and why did nobody tell me about it before??!’ book of 2011. I LOVED it, and up until I read The Night Circus, it was the book I was recommending to everybody, so I had incredibly high expectations of Fun Home going in.

Alison Bechdel’s autobiography centres around the family business; a funeral (‘fun’) home, and her childhood and growing up, although really it focuses on her issues with her father, Bruce Bechdel, and coming to terms with being a lesbian. Alison’s father is painted as a remote man, unpredictable, angry, and distant from his children. The reasons for this – that he was a closet homosexual who was having affairs with male students, and Alison’s babysitter – don’t become clear until later on in the book, but they have a considerable effect on Alison herself both consciously and unconsciously. She feels as a child that he loves their big, historic house more than his children, and is more interested in renovating it than in spending time with her and her brothers.

Although I didn’t love it like I love Persepolis, I can see where the comparison came from.  Both are stories of growing up in unusual and difficult circumstances (just to be clear, I’m not comparing Bechdel and Satrapi’s situations – they are clearly not the same, but they are both stories of a young girl feeling very lost and uncertain of who she was and where she belonged), and their style of illustration is similar – both are done solely in black and white and are very clear and easy to follow. Personally, it’s a style I find more relaxing than the full, aggressive colour of many other graphic novels.

The story isn’t told chronologically but jumps around a lot which I found made it more engaging. Both of Alison’s parents are prodigiously intelligent people; her father is a professor, and her mother is an actress. When I originally wrote that sentence, it came out in the past tense, and although Alison’s mother is still acting during the course of Alison’s childhood and adolescence, she feels like one of those women whose individuality became subsumed by her husbands’ personality and her children’s needs. Her mother seems very disappointed with life, resigned to living with a man who doesn’t really want to be with her, and whose interests are totally separate from her own. Bechdel talks about her mother with a sort of sadness, and actually I just found out that she is bringing out a new book in May 2012 entitled Are You My Mother, seemingly to even things out a bit.

Throughout the book, Alison’s parents are not often seen together, and when they are they are violently arguing, but still it takes Alison’s mother until Alison is nearly twenty to ask her father for a divorce. Her parents seem to both have very creative and intellectual lives, and her mother is in many ways an incredibly positive role model for Alison – acting and completing a Masters thesis while raising three children, but despite all the achievement she is shown as disappointed, lifeless, and worn out. The facial expressions in Fun Home were one of the things which made it most effective for me. Bruce Bechdel’s face is always the same – closed up and emotionless even when he is talking to Alison about having to visit a psychiatrist because he is ‘bad, not good like you’ (p153). Because Bechdel obviously knew what her father had done while writing the novel, the underlying accusation is always there throughout the story , giving the reader a different perspective on events than Bechdel herself would have had at the time.

People say that to a degree, every family is dysfunctional. I personally don’t have an experience of this – my family is big and loud and we all have similar interests and are always talking and ringing each other to borrow books, movies, clothes. We go to the pub together, to the cinema, some of my siblings came to stay for New Year and we had an awesome party... So I am lucky, but I know a lot of people who are less lucky than me, and everybody has their secrets it’s just that some are bigger than others, and Bruce Bechdels’ secret was definitely one of the bigger ones.

Another thing that I liked about Fun Home though was the other thing that makes it so comparable to Persepolis. It is filled with books. Throughout Alison’s life, she reads. Her father reads - he recommends her books from time to time. When she begins to think that she is a lesbian, she reads about it – all the books she can get her hands on. I can completely relate to this, and I’m sure many other readers can. When I want to learn about something, I read about it. Although I really enjoy a good debate, I am the kind of person who likes to be sure that I have all my facts straight first, and so in many ways I would rather learn intellectually first, before putting ideas into practice. I learned to knit this past year from a book,  which I know is not really comparable to learning about your sexuality from books, but it can be so comforting to read about somebody who has been through the situation you have been through and been confused as you are confused and to see how they resolved their situation.

Fun Home won’t be going on the list of things I rave at people about, but it will be staying on my shelf so that I can recommend it to people.  

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