Friday, August 28, 2015

Fear and Phobia: 'Everything is Teeth' by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner from Cape Graphic Novels/Vintage at PRH. I was drawn to it because, as a girl, Evie Wyld was fascinated by/obsessed with sharks and there are points in my life when I have been too. It’s a weird curiosity - one merged with fear and horror and awe and respect and it was only a while ago I began to realise how much this ‘fear’ had been shaped by twisted portrayals in the media and film – all from a very deliberate fear-mongering, self-interested, human perspective. People are infinitely scarier, infinitely crueller and infinitely more senseless than sharks and always will be. The things we do to the world around us, and to sharks, are infinitely worse than those they 'do' to us. 
Everything is teeth and everything can hurt us.
Sharks, unfortunately, evoke many of the states that makes us afraid – being unexpectedly dragged down, alone in a wide expanse, at the mercy of nature and in an environment of which we’ve barely scratched the surface. These ideas, suspicions and nightmares overtake reality. The sea is a space on earth where man has been unable to stake his claim and power and domination – it is beyond our control and comprehension.  

This graphic novel is a memoir of Evie’s childhood, divided between Peckham and Australia and is illustrated brilliantly by Joe Sumner. He interweaves a couple of different styles – with the stark photorealism of the sharks and the horrific, gruesome injuries sustained by shark attack survivor Rodney Fox, and simple cartoonish depictions of the human characters and settings. The colour palette is predominantly black and white, while the Australian landscapes are sometimes tinted with a weak but warm yellow and the shocking crimson of blood. For me, the photographic quality of the sharks is a brilliant contrast to everything else – they are what is most real and vivid and show how our fears can be more sharply defined than reality. Their realism also cements them as the focus and fixation of young Evie, their clarity is a strange kind of relief against the more subtle emotional undertones of her life. One of the facts that most fascinates Evie is that shark skin is serrated, capable of cutting you on its own, brushing against you by accident. They are both a grand metaphor for fear and loss but also intrinsically important in themselves.

This is generally quite a subtle and quiet book, the more important things are left unsaid but linger beneath the surface. There are hints of difficulties within the family, her father comes across as an isolated, disconnected character and her brother returns from being bullied at school, comforted only by her shark stories.

Throughout the narrative, this question is at the heart: are sharks fantastical man-eating monsters or innocent creatures who seek survival like all other life forms?

One of the most affecting pages is an image of a beached shark, ‘fat with young’, and when cut open, ‘they lie in dead rows. They look like puppies, soft and smooth and slippery’. Young Evie cradles one of the pups as her uncle disassembles the carcass. Nothing needs to be said, as the undertones are in the striking visuals and the short, descriptive sentences. Evie admits that she feels worse ‘than when, in order to accommodate the new microwave, the pet goldfish were poured into Peckham Rye pond’. This time the trail of blood is of their own making and exploitation.

Every time her family venture into the sea, Evie cannot help but envisage a scenario where they are eaten and taken from her – a hint at that fear of death and loss that sits quietly in the story. My favourite illustrations are those where Evie is walking down a street or across a field, and a shark is ever present in the background – even as she sits on the sofa, lies in her bed or washes in the bath. In a series of panels, cartoon Evie morphs into a shark herself. It’s the quiet image always at the back of her brain that seems to colour every experience.

Evie comes to realise that, it’s somewhat natural to be afraid of sharks because we are afraid of death, but death is not all that they are. She accepts that Rodney Fox went into the sea of his own accord and knew the risks and rather than running away in fear – she seeks to learn and understand more about the thing that’s made her afraid – to stare it in the face long enough for it not to control or dictate the rest of her life.

I would love for sharks to be explored more fully in literature and art, rather than simply as monsters and killing machines, Evie’s memoir is a really interesting exploration of her own journey from fear to acceptance. It’s a quiet book, with no dramatic climax, and no argument beyond the subtle inflections of the imagery and words, but it’s one that lingers in your mind and will leave you scratching at the surface, wanting to know more and better understand what it is that you're really afraid of. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review: 'All The Bright Places' by Jennifer Niven

Busy-ness means it’s taken me a while to get round to reviewing All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, even though the thoughts have been in my head since I finished it a few weeks ago.  I really, really admire Jennifer Niven and her reasons for writing the book. The author’s note is amazing. I think it’s definitely a valuable one for teens and young adults to read – especially with the growing attention to mental health and suicide amongst young people, particularly male. Suicide is the leading cause of death in men under the age of 35 (Department of Health, 2005) and it’s something that we need to understand and empathise with in our literature, for all ages.

Niven’s descriptions and cataloguing of inner thoughts are very good and very human, this is the real strength of the work. I found it much harder to relate to and engage with the dialogue (and the names were very The Fault In Our Stars). The dialogue is all very neat, idealised and poetic – it’s lovely but not necessarily believable or relatable. It’s the kind of dialogue of metaphor-heavy, star-crossed lovers that you would find in a John Green book, which doesn’t sit so well with who either character really is and what they’re going through. I just felt it sometimes relegates Violet and Finch to the quirky, artistic, offbeat romantic heroes, without the edge and depth and reality that you see in their inner-thoughts. There is a disconnect there which I couldn’t quite get over. Finch was an interesting character but I felt that Niven created him very much as an ‘other’, that quirky artiste figure/romantic hero, which is absolutely fine but I hope that there are more characters in YA who struggle with very real things who don’t have to be outlandish and ostracised, and you could spend more time in their head and their experience of daily life. Of course, Finch is very memorable the way he is. I just worry these characters will feel fake and distanced from the experience of teens reading this and going through similar things. It’s not all poetry, it can be gritty and messy and confusing – particularly falling in love when you’re going through something like this, which can be the most terrifying, self-doubt and paranoia-inducing thing.

There are definitely some quotes in this one that will stay with you. Finch’s fixation on Virginia Woolf was really intriguing and that line from her letters is very affecting –

‘You have been in every way all that anyone could be… if anybody could have saved me it would have been you’

My favourite, though, is Violet’s observation –

What a terrible feeling to love someone and not be able to help them.’ That’s one of the best and most perceptive lines in relation to mental illness and the frustrations and helplessness that come with it. The people who are left behind are often left to wonder if they could have done more, and sometimes the simple truth is that there is nothing they could have done. It’s like that Anais Nin quote – ‘you can’t save people, you can only love them’.

Also, as Finch notes:

The problem with people is they forget that most of the time it’s the small things that count

The Great YA Quote Board
on Pinterest
The little acts of kindness and support can be the most vital. I’m really glad Jennifer Niven had the chance to share this story with the world, it will definitely add to an important dialogue and I have a lot of respect for it, despite some of my qualms. Those criticisms are probably some of the things that have helped it to sell well and appeal and get this subject across to a larger audience. She is definitely a very talented writer and this is a book well worth reading for anyone as they grow up in this day and age.

Some other favourite quotes:
-          “Before they can start in on Finch, and the selfishness of suicide, and the fact that he took his life when Eleanor had hers taken from her, when she didn’t get a say in the matter-such a wasteful, hateful, stupid, thing to do - I ask to be excused.”

-           “It's my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other easily understood disease just to make it easier on me and also on them.”

-           I know life well enough to know you can’t count on things staying around or standing still, no matter how much you want them to. You can’t stop people from dying. You can’t stop them from going away. You can’t stop yourself from going away either. I know myself well enough to know that no one else can keep you awake or keep you from sleeping.”