Today I on the blog I have a review for David Small’s gripping memoir Stitches. Dark, and bordering on gothic, this book achieves an incredible balance between autobiography and visual storytelling. For those new to the medium, Stitches is an ideal place to start. And for those that are already seasoned in reading panels rather than pages, the beauty and flow of this haunting recollection is sure to keep you on your toes.
Title: Stitches – A Memoir
Author: David Small
Publisher: McClelland & Stuart Ltd.
Publication Date: September 8, 2009
Genre: Graphic Novel, Nonfiction, Autobiography, Memoir
Themes: Dysfunctional Families, Cancer, Survival, Coming of Age, Childhood Trauma
Features: Family photographs
My Rating: 5/ 5
One day David Small awoke from a supposedly harmless operation to discover that he had been transformed into a virtual mute. A vocal cord removed, his throat slashed and stitched together like a bloody boot, the fourteen-year-old boy had not been told that he had cancer and was expected to die.
In Stitches, Small, the award-winning children’s illustrator and author, re-creates this terrifying event in a life story that might have been imagined by Kafka. As the images painfully tumble out, one by one, we gain a ringside seat at a gothic family drama where David—a highly anxious yet supremely talented child—all too often became the unwitting object of his parents’ buried frustration and rage.
Believing that they were trying to do their best, David’s parents did just the reverse. Edward Small, a Detroit physician, who vented his own anger by hitting a punching bag, was convinced that he could cure his young son’s respiratory problems with heavy doses of radiation, possibly causing David’s cancer. Elizabeth, David’s mother, tyrannically stingy and excessively scolding, ran the Small household under a cone of silence where emotions, especially her own, were hidden.
Depicting this coming-of-age story with dazzling, kaleidoscopic images that turn nightmare into fairy tale, Small tells us of his journey from sickly child to cancer patient, to the troubled teen whose risky decision to run away from home at sixteen—with nothing more than the dream of becoming an artist—will resonate as the ultimate survival statemen.
Full disclosure book lovers, this is not the first time that I have read this book. In fact, it’s probably my 5th or 6th adventure through these pages – I love it that much. This is one of those reads that you can power through in a short amount of time and undoubtedly understand the story, or you can take your time to unpack all of the visual and textual information on the pages and walk away with an entirely different take on the events.
But a word of warning, for those that see this book in YA reading lists – just because it’s a graphic novel and starts off from the perspective of a child, doesn’t mean that it’s intended for children. Would I encourage older teens to engage with it? Absolutely! But it does deal with some pretty heavy hitting issues such as cancer, dysfunctional families, abuse, repressed sexuality, and overcoming childhood trauma. I would encourage readers of all ages to consider whether or not they’re comfortable reading such scenes in a visual format, as it can often evoke a very different emotional response than would be experienced with a traditional literary telling.
I love how the book starts abruptly with ‘I was six’ and then uses a series of silent panels to set the scene and mood of the memoir. There is so much said in, and between, these panels with it’s sombre scenes of empty streets, stretching hallways, and lone child playing in the living room. I have always loved too, how as the view zoomed in from Detroit to the front door of the house, how the door swings open and invites the reader into an almost voyeuristic experience. Not only is it incredibly cinematic, but this preamble establishes a pacing and flow that it maintained throughout the text.
The introductions to all of the major players – David, Ted, their mother, and father – are all even spaced, with more being said about each in the visual medium than is ever relayed in the written accompaniments. This is fitting however, given David’s deliberate and imposed silences, and the fact that art came to play such a huge role in his life. I instantly got a sense of fear from David’s mother, and soon came to dread any sequence in which she appeared. And similarly have always felt a sense of detachment and acceptance when reading David’s father. His grandmother too, gave me a serious case of the heebee jeebies with all her shouting, physicality and unpredictable moods. But what was most uncomfortable was the fact that everything is presented so matter of fact in writing, but so emotionally fraught in the imagery.
I felt so deeply for the caricature of David as he was constantly put in the position of least important – it was less important for David to see a doctor than for his mother to get a new car, less important for his parent to have an emotional bon with him than seek out affairs, less important than vacations and boating and parties… until he has his surgery, and then he simply seems to disappear. I will not say too much about his circumstance and family, as I hate handing out spoilers, but I will say that I was uplifted as David finally found his voice again and came to terms with his past.
The use of heavy ink work and grayscale watercolours had a tremendous impact. While I understand that many graphic novels are printed in black and white for economic reasons, the choice in this instance was an incredibly powerful one. It enhanced the depth and gravity of the darkest situations and allowed for the interplay between light and dark to be used to it’s maximum effect. So too were the forays into the more fantastical elements of David’s imagination with traces of Alice in Wonderland, cartoon bats, and adventures into ones own body. The contrast between David’s escapism and his brutal reality really drove home that these events happened to a child.
Would I recommend this book? In a heartbeat! It is my go to recommendation for those looking to get into the graphic novel medium, but it’s an outstanding choice for lovers of art and autobiographies alike. Sure, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind the inherent issues of autobiography in the back of your mind (as this memoir tells David’s story and makes no attempts to explore the situation from any other perspective – remember, it’s David’s story!) but it remains an absolutely amazing read. Deeply evocative and visually enthralling, this is one that sticks in your memory for a while.