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A life in pictures

Geneviève Castrée’s autobiographical graphic novel

“I wonder if it is possible for a sadness to be passed from one generation to the next…” writes Geneviève Castrée, in her latest graphic novel, Susceptible, as a naked depiction of herself walks across the pages. In the book, she begins as a baby, and grows into adulthood alongside an innocuous-looking  plant that soon envelops her and forces her to the ground, overwhelmed. The story that follows is an autobiographical retelling of her early life (with names changed) that makes you wonder about the answer to exactly that question.

We join Goglu, a two-year-old child of separated parents. She lives in Quebec with her mother, Amère, who, having borne Goglu at a young age, now struggles to make ends meet and enjoy a life as a young woman alongside dealing with parental responsibilities. An antagonist looms in the form of Amer, Amère’s boyfriend, who becomes a divisive figure in the relationship between Goglu and her mother, and becomes an increasingly unsympathetic figure as the story unfolds. Fittingly, amer and amère both mean “bitter” in French.

The narrative is formed out of collections of incidents, recollections, and reminiscences. The small details of suffering come alive on the page: Goglu’s rucksack full of toys is stolen on a train journey; she’s sent on lonely trip to the pharmacy in freezing weather for her hungover mother; she eats her cereal with water instead of milk.

The sense of location is faultless. Whether it is the underlying language politics of having a francophone mother and anglophone father, or simply the Montreal metro maps that appear in the background of a frame, wider events creep into the context of her life, from the École Polytechnique shooting to an arson attack on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. Some of these events don’t seem to have significance in the wider context of the story, yet most fall in thematically, and all serve to root the reader in the place and time.

In an email interview, The Daily asked Castrée about the importance of location in her work, as well as how things have changed since left  Canada (she now lives in the Pacific Northwest of the United States). “I wanted to make a book that gave a fairly good idea of what Quebec felt like in the eighties and nineties, from the French side of things. In the past my stories have taken place in weird dreamscapes, and that was mostly due to me being sort of lazy and unruly. I found it more fun to draw whatever I wanted. But since I wanted Susceptible to be as real as it could, I made myself study pictures of the locations linked to my childhood memories.”

“I have lived away from Montréal for a long time now. I think the move [that changed] the nature of my stories happened a long time ago, and then it happened again, and again.”

Autobiographical tales have become a staple within the alternative comics world, and serve as a medium in which writers and artists have a fresh way to share incredibly personal stories. Susceptible demonstrates exactly the unique quality that these comics can have.

“I guess comics as a medium helps readers to get a clearer picture because it [is visual],” Castrée said when asked why she thinks comics service this type of story so well. “And then autobiographical comics are so personal if you compare them to movies, because everything comes from the author. Had I made a movie of Susceptible I would have had to hire actors, run around vintage clothing stores and garage sales to find something ‘close to’ what life was like 25 years ago. Comics win. They are a great one-person job.”

After the often brutal honesty of the mother-daughter relationship that plays out through the book, the reader is rewarded with hope in answer to Castrée’s original question, hope that does not fall into the trap of sentimentality or simplification, but is real and human.