Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reader's Diary #982- Sarah Leavitt: Tangles


Tangles, the graphic memoir of Sarah Leavitt and her mother's Alzheimer's, is one of the most touching books I've read in a while. I choked up a few times. I also laughed a few times. A book that can move me to such bursts of emotion is a rare book indeed.

A disclaimer: My mother in law, and our family, has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for some time. Would a reader without a personal connection to Alzheimer's have the same reaction as I? It's hard to say, but it has won a ton of awards and critical acclaim, so I don't think I'm alone in my praise of the book.

The artistry is no where near as strong as the writing. Very few panels have any background whatsoever and character poses are often awkward. However, it is more than just functional. Like the writing, the drawings are honest. I like to rib a lot of the Drawn and Quarterly guys for "flashing" their readers, as it seems that every memoir they publish has to feature at least one panel exposing the artist's penis. I'm really not a prude. In fact, in Sarah Leavitt's Tangles, nudity is used brilliantly and for a number of reasons. Compare the scenes, for instance, when Sarah and her sister find themselves having to take care of their mother's hygiene, to a scene between Sarah and her partner in the shower. That something like nudity can cause such wildly different emotions depending on the context is captured so much more powerfully with the visuals. Leavitt's drawings, which admittedly look somewhat technically amateurish, are further redeemed by the subtle artistic choices. It's amazing, for instance, to watch in her's mother's face, the decline in her comprehension throughout the course of the book, captured largely with just a change in pupil size.

Leavitt shies away from nothing in the book. Every doubt, all the frustration, guilt, the rare releases of laughter, these are things that we've gone through (my wife more than I, obviously) and it means a lot to know that our reactions are normal. Had she chose to hide such details, it wouldn't have rang true, nor would it have been as powerful. On a somewhat less emotional level, I also found the book fascinating from a medical point of view. At the beginning of the book, Leavitt's mother's personality is almost nothing like it was of my mother in law's. However, as the disease took a hold of her mother Midge, I began to recognize more and more of my mother in law in Midge's actions and demeanour. Not identical manifestations of the disease, mind you, but quite similar.

I also appreciated the balance in the book. It's not just about her mom. It's not just about her mom's disease. It's also largely about herself. How can it not be? To some extent, when one person gets Alzheimer's, their entire family gets it. The adjustments and effects it has on the lives of everyone that loves that person are profound. Leavitt talks about her partner, she talks about her father, her sisters, her aunts. And yet, the story doesn't lose focus. I was very critical a couple years back when I wrote about Karen Connelly's Burmese Lessons and how self-centered it became, essentially ignoring the people of Burma (Myanmar). Thankfully Leavitt managed to write a very personal story without losing sight of others, and more importantly without losing the focus of the book: her mother.

There are many times when Tangles is not pretty. It's Alzheimer's. But for all that, Sarah Leavitt has created a beautiful story.

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