Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Essex County Trilogy: Poetry in the Panels

I finally got around to reading Jeff Lemire's Essex County Trilogy. I wanted the opportunity to read it in an interruption-free environment (that's tough with two kids under 3). To put it mildly, I was blown away. Lemire is able to infuse these pages with a sense of bleakness that wrenches your heart. At the same time, however, there is a bit of hope - and the sense that each life has meaning.

Volume 1: Tales From the Farm introduces us to the southwestern Ontario landscape, and a young orphan named Lester living with his Uncle. The Maple Leafs represent the only common ground between these two lonely souls, but even that is not enough to stave off the feeling of sadness. Lester befriends a local legend with whom he shares a love of comics. Lemire slowly begins to peel away at the onion through some flashbacks and confrontations. It you don't shed a tear during the hospital scenes, you may not be human.

Volume 2: Ghost Stories is really the core of the story as the historical roots of the family are slowly revealed. The chapter is told mainly via flashbacks. That can be a tough trick to pull off, but Lemire handles it deftly. The sense of isolation is palpable - on the farm, in the nursing home and even as a young man in the big city. The hockey sequences are a joy, and I personally got a lot out of the 'Toronto' parts, as I ride that streetcar and live very close to the old Edgewater Hotel (now a Days Inn) portrayed on one splash page. When I used the word poetry in the title to this entry, I'm talking about the beautiful sense of dreaming that we feel when viewing Lou's memories. Lemire is able to convey such emotion with a simple landscape or one small black pupil.

Volume 3: The Country Nurse provides us with the necessary glues to put all of the pieces together. We follow a dedicated nurse (who also happens to be a widow and single mother) as she travels the back roads of Essex County. As one life's chapter is about to close, we also see the genesis of it all as Lemire takes us back nearly 100 years to an isolated orphanage. A terrible tragedy is eventually countered by a new life and the foundation is laid for all of the characters portrayed in the fascinating world. It is really only when we see the family tree that we realize just how invested we've become in these lives.

This is a must read. Lemire's unique style is amazing, as he somehow paints 'real' faces using an expressionistic approach. One reviewer on the back of Volume 3 mentioned Willa Cather, and I had the exact same thought by the time I'd finish the volume. People will still be talking about these books 20 years from now.

No comments: