Two reasons to love your library

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I currently have three graphic novels on loan from the wonderfully stocked Redhill Library. One, a genre classic, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, I stumbled on whilst giving Noah his milk bottle.(Another great use of libraries, somewhere warm to feed a baby. Just like a coffee shop but with better stimulants). The other two are nominated for the Surrey Libraries Book Award, and both caused a stir when they were nominated for the Costa Book Awards. Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes won the Biography Prize and Days of The Bagnold Summer lost out to gong-absorbing juggernaut Bring up the Bodies.

Though both titles had piqued my curiosity, I doubt I would have read either, were it not for my local library.

The Days of the Bagnold Summer, is a slight tale but one with great emotional resonance. Having been a teenage boy, I found much to identify with one its two main characters. As I have three teenage-boys-in-waiting of my own, I could sympathise greatly with the other.

The Bagnold Summer is the six week holiday that Daniel is forced to spend at home with his mum, Sue. Daniel was meant to go to America to stay with his Dad and Step-mom. He was also going to meet his new half-sister, but the trip is cancelled at the last-minute. The presence of Daniel is not required in this new family unit.

This is the launch-pad of this thoughtful, and more than slightly depressing novel. It’s a tale of rejection. Having been rejected by his father, Daniel in turn rejects his mother’s attempts at salve his wounds. The pair have been rejected by the same man; Sue has been rejected by father and son.

The tale is illustrated in a naive fashion. Simple black and white panels. Nothing fancy, much like Sue and Daniel’s existence. Daniel is a typical (I think), teenager, belonging to the heavy-metal clan. He dreams continually of being in a band. He has one friend, the supremely confident but utterly inept KY. Daniel’s love-hate relationship with KY is the other pivotal axis of the book. Everybody has a KY in their lives, and the evolution of their friendship is rendered beautifully.

Sue cuts a lonely figure. A woman to whom life has happened to, as she passively sat and took the punches. Will Daniel turn out the same? There are minuscule but important changes in the relationship between mother and son, and the purpose of this book is that we see them unfold. The central tale is so slight it’s hard to imagine a traditional prose novel being able to capture its nuances without being dull. Winterhart’s simple drawings breath life into his creations. His dialogue, simple but effective.

This may just be one of be the least transformational coming of age novels ever written, which I think is part of its draw. For most of us life rolls on and our changes are incremental. A subtle and affecting analysis of the mother-son bond.

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I knew almost nothing of Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, other than it was illustrated by the brilliant Bryan Talbot. Talbot has written lots of great graphic novels including the exquisite Grandville series. I knew that Dotter was a collaboration with his wife, and autobiographical, but had no idea it was a dual biography, shared with James Joyce and his daughter Lucia.

Mary Talbot’s father was a Joycean scholar and the book draws parallels between Mary and Lucia’s lives. Two daughters of driven, volatile men, both stories are compelling, but I was fascinated by the sections concerning Joyce and his family. It paints a vivid picture of the arts scene in pre-war Paris, and is stuffed full of interesting tidbits of literary history that I was woefully ignorant of. I had no idea, for example of the link between Beckett and Joyce (other than the fact, they are both unreadable. Considering I fail to understand the work of either of them, this potted history was fascinating).

At times I felt I was reading ‘introducing’ Joyce (if you haven’t read any introducing books they are illustrated primers on philosophy and art, and very informative.), but this is only half the story. The lives of both women and their relationships with their parents are moving and emotive. Both women had a love-hate relationship with their fathers (and in Lucia’s case mother too) that were ultimately destructive.

I was gripped by Dotter of her Father’s Eyes in a way I never am for a traditional biography. It is compelling from start to finish and worthy of its Costa Prize.

Reading both of these books has been a revelation. If you were only going to splash out for one, I would pick Dotter, but better still, go down to the library and get them both out, you won’t regret it.

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