By Judith Vanistendael
“The doctor’s verdict is final: David has cancer. There is still a possibility of remission, but it is very small. And if the tumour kills him, David won’t have a chance to see his baby granddaughter Louise grow up. We see his wife become progressively consumed by the looming shadow of death, in Vanistendael’s sensitive portrayal of a family preparing for life after David.”
Vanistendael certainly has form; her debut graphic novel Dance By The Light Of The Moon dazzled, a black and white love story told from two generations, parent and child, during and post love affair. But here we’re on darker ground…..
Another book about death and cancer? Oh yes. Because death happens to everyone, and as I get older, it seems cancer happens to too damn many of us as well.
So yes, Judith Vanistendael’s follow up to the beautiful Dance By The Light Of The Moon is all about death and cancer. Except, as is the way, it’s about more than that.
It’s about the way the patient; elderly new parent second time around David, deals with the diagnosis of laryngeal cancer…. in silence. An emotional silence, a refusal to deal with it, a refusal to let his loved ones in, a refusal to really talk about it. And that just frustrates and infuriates his extended family, particularly his second wife Paula, who takes his withdrawal particularly hard, retreating herself to her own grief; alone, frustrated, angry…..
So whilst it’s about the dying David, it’s also all about the disease’s reach; the circle of family affected by the diagnosis. Paula, who feels isolated, pushed out, as David spends his time with young pre-teen Tamar, his daughter by Paula, and with his older daughter from his first marrriage Miriam, whose own daughter is born just as David gets his death sentence diagnosis.
And that’s how the book opens; David getting the bad news from his doctor, Miriam giving birth to David’s grand-daughter Louise.
Life and death, life and death.
And once diagnosed it becomes about how David chooses to live his life, how he chooses to approach his death. Again and again, the line of life and death blurs in Vanistendael’s tale.
On the positive side, it’s a beautifully drawn piece, Vaistendael going full colour her, to sometimes breath-taking effect. Sumptuous pretty much covers it at times… times like these….
But the thing is, I was expecting, wanting this to be the heartbreaking piece of beautiful storytelling that I was promised by various press release quotes. I wanted it to grab all that was touching, emotional, raw, from Vanistendael’s debut and transpose it to the death story of David. But no, it just didn’t do it. When David Lost His Voice simply seems too flighty, too unfocused, it flitted about when it needed to be raw and punchy, it was broken, staccato, switched too quickly, never let us linger when it needed to, and the raw emotion somehow seemed lost.
Of course, I could be wrong, I could be accused of being simply too much the tear hunter, wanting the raw emotional wrench and wanting the tears to flow. When they didn’t, perhaps my disappointment came too much to the fore?
So I read it again. With less expectation weighing me down emotionally I felt a little more, but I was still appreciating the art more than the story, and it still seemed too loose, too quick to throw away an emotion packed scene and move on.
There are certainly, some beautifully composed moments, some magnificent ideas in here; little Tamar’s irrepressible youth is so well portrayed as she copes with the impending death through fantasy and silly childhood imagining of what may be is a particularly wonderful thread, and gives a touch of light humour to contrast with the darkness of the theme. A catch your breath moment hits when Paula, freed from David’s care by a lecture trip to Finland, finds herself taken with the freedom, dancing with a stranger, and then the come down, the reason she was dancing…..
And for someone dealing right now with a mother lost to Alzheimers, the finale is such a powerful clarion call to the necessity of euthanasia as to really hit home hard. That bit hurt, that bit felt raw. But even then, it didn’t draw tears, not really, not in the way it maybe should. And anyone who knows me will know a lack of tears in a story of this sort is never a good thing.
In the end, it’s a beautifully composed tale, but more for Vanistendael’s art and pacing than for the emotional punch of the story. Her style is less raw here than in Dance, and it shows a deceptively light cartoon style that retains a realism necessary to make you believe the characters.
But after a couple of reads, after thinking about it, this just felt too much like we were mere visitors to the lives unfolding, too often the scenes switched before I wanted them to, events unfolded too quickly, never really allowing the reader any real emotional payoff. Thing is, this may well just be my reaction to the way Vanistendael wanted to tell this tale, as the sense of visiting briefly to view the drama unfold is one she obviously worked hard to attain. Maybe I’m just an emotion junkie, wanting my fix, and pissed off that Vanistendael never really delivered the full misery?
It’s a gorgeous, yet flawed thing, beautifully documenting such tragedy, yet never really fully engaging with this reader. I wish it had, I really do. The tears would have flowed.