The Inflatable Woman by Rachel Ball: Ways without words

Cover image 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.

8 thoughts on “The Inflatable Woman by Rachel Ball: Ways without words”

  1. I have to hand it to the creators of graphic storytelling, they are at least able to entice a whole swathe of readers to engage with storytelling in a more visual way, which is better than not engaging at all. My daughter expresses everything through drawing and image and refused to read a book for pleasure until she discovered those with graphics, she created her own before she discovered they already existed, it’s just another genre but with an essential element for those who are drawn to it.

    1. I’m sure you’re right, Claire, and I think things have moved on considerably since the ’90s when I was in bookselling.

  2. I don’t usually go for graphic novels, but this sounds lovely. And, I know there are a few other good ones around lately, too. Starting to feel like I should check some of them out!

  3. This book sounds great! I like that “Operation”-style cover image. I’ve only reviewed a handful of graphic novels, but I’m trying to get more into them. I’m currently reading Ruins by Peter Kuper, which has a couple on sabbatical — and a monarch butterfly — making their way to Oaxaca, Mexico. I’m enjoying the environmental and travel themes, and he sometimes uses the monochrome colour scheme you’ve noted above to emphasize certain scenes.

    I’ll be interested to hear your take on City on Fire. I’ve read reviews from both ends of the spectrum, though most have been adulatory. (A negative one was in the Guardian on Saturday, though.) I’ve only just made it through Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and A Brief History of Seven Killings, so I think I’m too exhausted at the moment to contemplate another doorstopper!

    1. It’s a great jacket, isn’t it. Iris is such an endearing character. I’m not sure if it will lead me on to more graphic novel reading although I like the sound of Ruins. It sounds like it time for a novella for you!

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