Well, this is a first for me – a review of a graphic novel. Back in my early bookselling days I was pretty sniffy about this particular genre which appeared to consist almost entirely of rather lurid fantasy novels: catnip to shoplifters or so it seemed. I’m not sure I sold one in all the time we stocked them but they disappeared from the shelves all the same. Then Art Spiegelman’s Maus came along with its cartoon depictions of the Holocaust in which the Nazis were cats and the Jews mice, probably the first graphic novel to make the literati sit up and take notice. Since then graphic novels have been taken more seriously with occasional broadsheet reviews for the likes of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepholis and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters. I’ve not become a convert but after an overdose of words following a round or two with Garth Risk Halberg’s gargantuan City on Fire (more of that in a later post) Rachael Ball’s The Inflatable Woman suddenly seemed quite appealing. It’s the story of Iris who is diagnosed with breast cancer and it started off as a blog after Ball received the same diagnosis herself.
Iris is a zookeeper. She’s single but longs for love, tapping away into the night on internet dating sites using the monicker balletgirl_42. She meets sailor_buoy_39 who likes to ‘fish for compliments’ and loves Herman Melville. One day in the shower Iris finds not one lump but two in her breast. She takes herself off to the doctor, then the consultant accompanied by Granma Suggs. The news isn’t good – Iris must have a mastectomy – but all she can think about is marrying Henry, aka sailor_buoy_39, now that they’ve met despite her lanky friend Maud’s best efforts to make her see sense. Iris journeys from the operating table through chemo and its attendant horrors then ‘The Helping Hand’ therapy unit, coming out the other side one year later and achieving her dream.
Ball’s drawings are simple, grey, almost childlike charcoal sketches – there’s only one instance of colour and it’s red. There are some lovely scenes – penguins serenading Iris hoping to console her, a well-mannered monkey reminding her of what she’s achieved. Dream and nightmare scenes summon up the terror of dealing with cancer and medics are shown needing a few empathy lessons – the grinning Dr Magic with his sycophantic acolytes is particularly striking. The skinny spectres of death pop up frequently. It’s funny and tender, and I hope it helped Ball through her ordeal. If you want a flavour of her drawings you might like to visit her website where you’ll also find a photo of her large, very beautiful cat. Back to words, now.