“But he was something she’d always wanted in her life.”
This is Sarah Lippett’s debut graphic novel, and my goodness, it’s an extremely impressive one. A beautifully gentle slice of family life, framed around the titular Stan and Nan, her grandfather and grandma. But people are people, families are families and this story of Sarah’s family is, in many ways the story of so many of our families, and as such it is very, very easy to become lost in the emotions, empathise with the highs and the lows, because we’ve all experienced similar happenings in our own lives.
The book is split into two halves, her grandfather Stan, and her grandmother Nan, although I should add that division is only really in terms of structure, two main chapters looking at a lifetime though each of them. But this is a loving couple and their own children and their children’s children, so really it’s all intertwined; the two pronged approach is really just giving us a more rounded view of it all as Sarah asks her mother, her Nan and others in her family about her grandfather, Stan, who she never got to know as he died suddenly. It’s a lovely story of a young man, little more than a lad when he had to go out to work to support his family during hard times, his talent for art often put to one side as he worked hard to provide (although he continued to make art his whole life, some even commercially, like designs for the famous Stoke Potteries, many for family; their homes all decorated with some of his work).
And then meeting Sarah’s Nan, his future wife, a young lady whose strict mother wasn’t keen on her seeing boys. And then she meets Stan, who makes her laugh, makes her smile, and she realises that some things in life are more important than your mother’s strict rules. Married only months after starting to date (in the same church that would see many of the rest of their family also married), they settle into their new home, carving out a life together. Nan was an only child, longing to have a large family of her own, and soon she and Stan do just that. In fact as the years go past and Stan works two jobs to make ends meet their family grows rapidly – it’s a home full of life, kids running around playing, many pets, a vibrant, loving home.
Sarah’s art is executed almost like a child’s drawing, deceptively simple, and yet working beautifully – one scene with her Nan showing her some of her grandfather’s art around the house and in a couple of frames she goes from her Nan being wonderfully animated, smiling as she talks about some of her special favourites, then the very next frame the smile gone, a more introspective expression as she adds “I love them all.” And you know just from those expressions Sarah gives her that she’s not talking about just the art, it’s the man who made them, the man she loved, and they aren’t only objects of art, they are reminders all around her home of the life they shared. A life that lead to Sarah’s mum and her aunts, and to her, of course. While the art mostly focuses on the characters, there are also some charming touches – a double-page spread in a sort-of cutaway style showing the bustling departments of the Potteries where Stan works some of his designs, or another cutaway of the family house, teeming with happy, much-loved life.
The second part, focused more on Nan, talks about how hard she found it after Stan’s sudden death, and how it was the arrival of the grandchildren that really made her happy again for the first time since losing him, and also takes us to Nan’s passing as well, and Sarah and her family having to deal with that loss, of knowing she was declining, holding her hand against the inevitable dying of the light. And the funeral, the family gathered, the awful, soul-scarring sorrow balanced by sharing memories of better times. Then as they gather in her home, feeling odd without Nan being there, the hearse arrives and there’s the simple line as one of her aunts sees the casket, “she just can’t be in there…”
It brought my reading to a complete halt for several minutes, hitting far too close to home, and I imagine for most it will be the same, because most of us have had that wretched thought at a funeral, seeing that bloody narrow wooden box and thinking the person I loved, whose hand I held when I was scared, who held me and made everything better, they can’t be inside that, we can’t be going to put them in the cold, dark earth. And we know it isn’t them, it’s just the shell, the person we loved inhabited that shell, and they aren’t in there any longer. But it still feels so horribly wrong, and that one, simple scene had me crying like a child. If it doesn’t make your eyes moist then perhaps you’ve been very fortunate not to lose someone very dear to you yet, but believe me, emotionally Sarah nails this so perfectly.
And that’s where much of the power comes from in Stan and Nan, the emotional and empathic resonance with the reader, because so many of the stories about her family history are the same sort of stories and the same sort of character our own families have. It’s a gorgeously human, emotional story, sad in places but mostly you will remember the better times, and the smiles on the faces of Stan and Nan, and that’s as it should be, because we all encounter sorrow, but it’s the moments smiling with those we love that make it all worthwhile.